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King Lear Review: Frank Langella at BAM

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As King Lear, Frank Langella goes through four distinct and remarkable phases.

He begins, brightly lit, in gold crown and red robe, in voice and gesture still commanding, whether standing over his three daughters making sweeping gestures, or sitting on a throne that, tellingly, looks as old and flaking as the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.   He seems stiff — slightly arthritic? —  and when he stumbles, we wonder — is that the actor Langella who just tripped by accident, or is that Lear not as much in command as he thinks he is.

An hour later, he is standing in mud in a rainfall, the actual water drenching him, pummeling him, as if in defiance of his still powerful presence. Lit in blue — the lighting by Peter Mumford is striking throughout the play — the scene illuminates the beginning of Lear’s awakening and his descent, a man used to being in command, now realizing for the first time that he is not being obeyed.

He is raving an hour after that, dressed in muddied white undergarments and a crown of straws as if to mock his former majesty.

And then finally at the end, he is an old, old man, head down in mourning — or maybe simply empty of all conscious thought, catatonic.

Langella’s performance is arresting. One could argue it is far more persuasive than the one given by Derek Jacobi on this same stage three years ago. But the rest of that production three years ago, directed by Michael Grandage from the Donmar Warehouse in London, supported Shakespeare’s tragedy  better than the current one,  directed by Angus Jackson and coming from the Chichester Festival Theatre.

As Cordelia, Isabella Laughland is childlike, lacking energy — no match for Pippa Bennett-Warner’s strong, feisty Cordelia in the Grandage production, but really, no match for any Cordelia I’ve ever seen. If I were Lear, I too would be irked by Laughland’s Cordelia, who seems indecisive rather than forthright when she refuses to flatter her father, and thus loses his favor to her two scheming sisters. Hers is not so much a terrible interpretation, as a lack of interpretation, making me wonder why she was cast at all; I got a clue in the Who’s Who: She appeared in two Harry Potter movies.

No other cast members are such ciphers — another Harry Potter alumnus, Harry Melling, fares better as Lear’s Fool — but none especially stand out.  I want my Edmund, who orders the deaths of both Lear and Cordelia, to be evil incarnate, for example; Max Bennett cannot help his good looks, but must he be so…dashing? Similarly, Lauren O’Neil’s Regan seems too much the patient daughter of a difficult father — until, anyway, she helps pluck out Gloucester’s eyes. (Following what seems to be a trend, we are treated to the sight of what look like Denis Conway’s actual eyeballs being thrown across the stage.)

Frank Langella carries this King Lear. He so effectively plays an old man who loses all his power that you never doubt Langella’s power as a performer, and, though he is 76 years old, you come away marveling at how well he can impersonate somebody so old.

King Lear

At Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Angus Jackson; sets and costumes by Robert Innes Hopkins; lighting by Peter Mumford; music by Isobel Waller-Bridge; sound by Fergus O’Hare. A Chichester Festival Theater production, presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Cast: Sebastian Armesto (Edgar), Max Bennett (Edmund), Denis Conway (Gloucester), Rob Heaps (France/Knight/Guard), Rendah Haywood (Ensemble), Frank Langella (King Lear), Isabella Laughland (Cordelia), Catherine McCormack (Goneril), Harry Melling (Fool), Tom Mothersdale (Oswald), Chu Omambala (Albany), Lauren O’Neil (Regan), Steven Pacey (Kent), William Reay (Burgundy/Captain/Guard), Michael Sheldon (French Commander/Servant), Parth Thakerar (Servant/Herald/Messenger), Tim Treloar (Cornwall) and Alan Vicary (Doctor).

Running time: three hours, including one intermission

King Lear is scheduled to run through February 9

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About New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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