It can be so thrilling to be in a room resounding with rage – provided that one is not the target. Frank Langella rails magnificently as Shakespeare’s conflicted ex-King Lear. The self-ousting monarch directs his full-bodied fury first at his insufficiently worshipful youngest daughter, Cordelia (bland Isabella Laughland); then to her two scheming siblings, Goneril and Regan (Catherine McCormack and Lauren O’Neil, both coolly rapacious); and ultimately at the elements. At the apex of Lear’s lurch toward infuriating insignificance, Robert Innes Hopkins’ stark primeval set is subjected to a literal downpour, against which even Langella’s spectacular sonority must struggle.
If this were a one-chord performance – all anger, all the time – it would still be impressive. It’s all the more so given that Langella, still strapping at 76 (an elder’s hesitant gait does not seem to come naturally), makes the most of subtle shadings in the text. His Lear comes across as imperious, yet never peevish (a failing of Derek Jacobi’s portrayal in this same space three years ago). The ruler’s gradual slippage from sanity appears to stem not so much from eroded pride – though that’s certainly a factor – as from the flood of vulnerability that can accompany a sudden surge of empathy.
The sight of abject, babbling Tom (Sebastian Armesto) prompts in this Lear what appears to be the first stirrings of a willingness to identify with the dispossessed. (“O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this!" he muses, just moments before. "Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.”) Lear's heart, once pried, is further wrenched by the arrival of his faithful adjutant, the hideously blinded Gloucester (Denis Conway). Their reunion on the barren heath suggests a Pietà – and foreshadows the other cradling, which we know will end the play.
This is Langella’s show, unmistakably, but he’s ably abetted by director Angus Jackson (who helmed the original Chichester Festival Theatre production this fall) and by a cast that, with minor exceptions, manages to match him in power and finesse.
Lear's retinue may appear recessive at first glance, but the imbalance works out especially well for Goneril’s husband, the honorable Albany (Chu Omambala), whom she decries as a “milk-livered man.” At play’s end, the newly invigorated Albany seizes the reins, a triumph of decency over greed. Armesto, as the dispossessed Edgar (aka Tom), also comes into his own, eclipsing his half-brother nemesis, the devilishly charming Edmund (Max Bennett).
In a season threatened by Shakespeare glut (as if such a surfeit could be cause for dismay), this foray warrants utmost attention. It repays in pleasure the depth it achieves.