We here at The Jade Sphinx are still reeling from the magnificent performance of Derek Jacobi (born 1938) as Lear at BAM nearly three years ago. It remains, simply, the greatest Shakespearean turn we have ever witnessed. Is Frank Langella (born 1938), one of the finest actors of his generation, up to the challenge?
Lear is one of the most provoking and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays. Its place in his cosmology is deeply contentious – is the play one of the most bleak and despairing ever penned, or do the final reconciliations and admissions of frail humanity make it ultimately optimistic? We have seen Lears howling into windstorms, mumbling quietly to themselves, and – sometimes, as in the case of Jacobi – opening their inner-selves to display the very workings of their souls.
The current production of King Lear is a mixed bag of delights. As is often the case when a “Great Actor” tackles a major role, many of the supporting parts are stinted, and that is the case here. Fortunately, the overall value of the production maintains a consistent interest.
We are first struck by the wonderful set by Robert Innes Hopkins, a blasted heath right out of a horror film. Lit by torches, capable of suggesting a castle and a barren ruin, it strikes a wonderfully somber note (helped immeasurably by dramatic lighting by Peter Mumford).
Cavorting through this magnificent design is Langella. Oddly enough this protean actor, so famous for the velvety richness of his voice, changes the timbre and pitch to something more like a growl. Where Jacobi saw Lear as alternately a spoiled and abused child, Langella visualizes the King as both an old fool and an old bully. It is an entirely valid approach, but his growling, shouting and raging in the first act strikes a single note, and his performance suffers from a lack of variety.
However, Langella improves exponentially in the second act. His voice returns to its normal register. His mad scene with Gloucester is delightfully played, and his reconciliation with Cordelia moving. At her death, his reading of "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all? O thou'lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never” is among the most moving I have ever seen. Langella pauses between each “never,” looking into different parts of the theater, his voice softly echoing through the house. It’s a wonderful moment, and one wishes there were more like it.
Director Angus Jackson creates a wonderfully theatrical experience, with many showy set-pieces. The raging storm where Lear descends into madness is effective (though the staging nearly overwhelms Langella’s playing), and the suggested battle bits (lights flashing behind looming trees) is impressive.
Sadly, Jackson falls far short of providing sufficient support for Langella. Denis Conway, as Glouscester, William Reay, as Burgundy, and Steven Pacey, as Kent, are all fine without setting the stage afire. On the other hand, Catherine McCormack, as Goneril, and Isabella Laughland, as Cordelia, are simply wretched. (In fact, Laughland is never more convincing than when she plays a corpse.) As Albany, Chu Omambala delivers the most flat and uninteresting performance I have seen this season.
Lauren O’Neil is terrific as Regan, and Harry Melling quite wonderful as the Fool. (Why does Shakespeare make this wonderful creation vanish from the latter part of the play? One of the many mysteries of the play…) As Cornwall, Tim Treloar is deliciously evil.
Better still are Max Bennett and Sebastian Armesto as half-brothers Edmund and Edgar, respectively, who lend wonderful support. Armesto makes a particularly appealing Edgar, and straddles the difficult line of rejected son to feigned madman superbly. Better still is Bennett. King Lear often becomes Edmund’s play when cast correctly, and the handsome and athletic Bennett makes a meal of his role. By turns suave, puckish, conniving, and amoral. It is a star-making turn, and this Lear may signify the debut of a major, North American classical actor. Mr. Bennett, more, please.
At the end, we were somewhat moved when the final effect should’ve been devastating. This Lear is highly dramatic, but only intermittently moving. It could have been so much more.
This production of Lear premiered in October 2013 at Chichester's Minerva Theatre and plays its New York engagement at BAM through Feb. 9 in the Harvey Theater.