Sunday, January 19, 2014

‘King Lear’: The Play’s The Thing to Celebrate With the Splendid Frank Langella in the Lead

Frank Langella as King Lear

When you think about it, the title really does say it all.

Shakespeare called his play King Lear—not The Former King Lear, or King Lear, Retired.  And therein lies the key to understanding the declawed lion who at turns is regal, miserable, nasty, confused, and pitiable. 

We all know the outline of the plot: an elderly king abdicates, intending to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, presumably to insure the peaceful transfer of power to the next generation.  But, of course, from the moment he moves to bring this about, problems arise, brought on by his failure to understand the personal and political ramifications of his actions.  

King Lear is a very complex play, with multiple characters who are complex in their own right.  In addition there is a varying shift of tone that can be confusing.  Parts of the play read as very Elizabethan, while others take on the blood-lust-and-greed qualities of Jacobean drama.  As an aside, I’ll mention that such a duality also is evident in Timon of Athens, written at approximately the same time and about which it has been speculated that Shakespeare shared the writing credits with Thomas Middleton, a master of Jacobean gore. 

Whether King Lear is the work of Shakespeare alone or the result of a collaboration, I’ll leave to the scholars to fight over. Regardless, I will say that reading the play can certainly be a challenge, not only with the conflicting styles but also with the inclusion of characters who have similar-sounding names (Edgar and Edmund), or who shift into different roles that come and go (Edgar and “Poor Tom”), or who are pretty much interchangeable (Goneril and Regan).  And, for that matter, do we really need both the noble Kent and the noble Gloucester to make the point? 

Thankfully, with a good production such as the one now on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, King Lear is much easier to comprehend (though I’ll confess I’m still not having much luck differentiating Goneril from Regan).  A strong cast, with several standouts, along with sharp directing by Angus Jackson, help keep the audience glued to the action for the three-hour running time. 

But, of course, everything hangs on the actor in the title role.  And what a thrill it is to watch Frank Langella, at the age of 76, as he wrestles with and ultimately conquers the highly demanding and exhausting portrayal of this great mythic personality. 

There are many ways to interpret the role of King Lear.  Here Mr. Langella gives us a Lear who has known nothing but deference to his every whim for most of his life, like some protected pop star surrounded always by his fawning entourage.

That he expects to maintain his regal lifestyle after giving up the throne makes perfect sense. That he fails to understand his daughters also makes perfect sense as well, for who would expect an all-powerful king to have been closely involved in the lives of his offspring?  It follows, as well, that whatever obeisance they may owe him, expecting filial love from any of his daughters (including, yes, Cordelia) is to seek what is not possible.

Thus Regan (Lauren O'Neil) and Goneril (Catherine McCormack) proffer false and formalized words of love at Lear’s behest in order to get what they want. Their younger sister, Cordelia (Isabella Laughland), either out of honesty or naiveté, is more straightforward in the speech that sets off Lear’s downward spiral:  “I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”

The explosion triggered by Cordelia’s words marks the beginning of the end, as Lear disinherits her on the spot and ties his anticipated retirement years to the mercies of the other two—a foolish misjudgment that, coupled with a deepening mental fog associated with senility, lead to his utter and complete descent into the nothingness that only mere mortals would recognize as the closing arc of life.

Wondrous it is to watch Langella as he shapes the rise and fall of Lear’s descent through anger, hurt, sadness, despair, unbridled rage, and, eventually, periods of gentleness, understanding, and acceptance until the very end. 

Through his journey, he is aided by his fellow actors, especially Denis Conway (marvelous as Gloucester) and by Steven Pacey as Kent, both of whom have a terrific grasp of their roles and of performing Shakespeare.  Harry Melling as the Fool, and Sebastian Armesto in the dual role of Edgar/Poor Tom are both very good as well.  And while I could live without the onstage rainstorm (a bit of technological magic that seems overindulgent), the production itself is well-conceived and generally unfussy.

Whether you are a connoisseur of King Lear or you have yet to see a production, this is certainly a good one to attend, if only for the first-class performance by Mr. Langella. 

On the other hand, you might want to wait out the cold of winter to see what the Theater for a New Audience has in store at its new home right around the corner from the Harvey.  Its version of King Lear, starring Michael Pennington, begins March 14 and runs to May 4.

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