NEW YORK – Frank Langella, a premium theater and film actor, is taking on Shakespeare’s colossal role of King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Feb. 8.
This production of “King Lear” was first presented last fall at England’s Chichester Festival. It has been creatively imagined by its stager, Angus Jackson, the festival’s associate director.
For the most part, this “King Lear” is admirable, and Mr. Langella’s performance towers at times into magnificence. Mr. Langella brings to the role of Lear all of the humanity, dignity and passion that his unique insights have loaned to the multitude of characters he has created on stage and film over the years. Consider his Tony Award-winning role (also on film) of Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon.”
Seeing him in his current role, you feel that Mr. Langella’s performance has a wisdom and complete understanding of “Lear” that few actors could achieve. In this greatest drama of the English language, Mr. Langella strives for greatness.
At age 76, Mr. Langella is still majestic in appearance; he is a big man and ruggedly handsome, with a voice that can be poetic one moment and sound like a sonorous trumpet the next. When he first appears onstage as Lear – in his royal robes and crown – you notice his white hair, but also his young man’s stride.
The first scene of “Lear” is a difficult one, with Lear demanding that his daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, put their love into words. The next scene with Lear and Goneril is better, actually one of the strongest in the play. He battles with his eldest daughter and, though he has given away his title and his kingdom and his money, he still is the heroic and headstrong King Lear, the master of his life. He can be awesome and frightening as he rails against Goneril, especially when he calls down curses on her cruelty.
Mr. Langella also can be wonderfully tender with the nagging, mocking young Fool played by Harry Melling, or most moving when he struggles with the encroaching fears of madness. During the storm scene – soaked by falling rain – he speaks great Shakespearean passages with a soaring, touching eloquence that reflects an old man’s heart.
Time and time again, he rails against his daughters; he cuts the hard edge of his rage with an expression of sorrow so profound that it seems to sum up not only Lear, but the sufferings of all men and women through the ages who have been more sinned against than sinning. In such moments, the real grandeur of the play emerges. It is not just a chronicle of one old man’s family folly, but of the pride that wrecks most men’s lives, whether they are small and insignificant or grand and powerful like King Lear.
The actresses who play Lear’s daughters are a bit of a disappointment. Catherine McCormick as the cruel Goneril and Lauren O’Neil as the even more brutal Regan don’t seem to know the characters well enough. Their performances are intelligent, but lacking almost entirely in the cold-bloodedness that is required. They don’t have the toughness in their manner or in their voices. Isabella Laughland, who plays the young and tender Cordelia, is a better fit.
Some of the male characters appear to be on Mr. Langella’s level, bringing fire and conviction to their scenes. Mr. Melling, as the Fool, avoids cuteness altogether and shows off the boy-character for what he is. As the gullible old Earl of Gloucester, Denis Conway is commendable, and Max Bennett takes center stage confidently, coolly and comically as Gloucester’s evil illegitimate son.
Chu Omambala plays the good the Earl of Albany, while Tim Treloar is the wicked Duke of Cornwall. Sebastian Armesto, as the true son of Gloucester, is outstanding, playing the two roles of Edgar and the madman Poor Tom. Mr. Jackson does well at staging the play’s intimate scenes with sharp focus and the big ones with sweep and grandeur.
The sets by Robert Innes Hopkins are simple but suitable, suggesting the places and the primitive times of King Lear. The Shakespearean period costumes are muted but in eloquent colors, and Peter Mumford has lit the production with a true dramatic sense.
However, the show rests on Mr. Langella’s shoulders, and he takes possession of the admirable, heroic “King Lear.”
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and writes about the arts and entertainment.