Frank Langella, a premium actor of theater and film, is taking on Shakespeare’s colossal role of King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Feb. 8. 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 Langella’s performance towers at times into magnificence.
Langella brings to the role of Lear all the humanity, dignity and passion of his unique insight that he has brought to the multitudes of characters he has created on stage and screen over the years. For example, just think of his matinee idol take on Count Dracula on Broadway in the 1970s, reprised on film with Laurence Olivier, or his recent Tony Award-winning role (also on film) of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. You feel here that Langella’s performance has a wisdom and a complete understanding of Lear that few actors could achieve. In this greatest drama of the English language, Langella strives for greatness.
At 76, Langella is still majestic in appearance. He is a big man, 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, a bit of the aged Lear’s walk, but there is always a constant youthful energy about Langella’s acting delivery.
The first scene of Lear is a difficult one, with Lear demanding of his daughters – Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia – to put their love into words. The next scene with Lear and Goneril is better – one of the strongest in the play – where he battles with his oldest daughter. Though he has given away his title, 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 with Goneril, especially when he calls down curses on her cruelty.
He 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 the soaring, touching eloquence of an old man’s heart.
Time and time again, he rails at his daughters, cutting the hard edge of his rage with an expression of sorrow so profound that it seems to sum up not only Lear but all the sufferings of men and women down through the ages who have been more sinned against than sinning. In such moments, the real grandeur of the play emerges, which is not just a chronicle of one old man’s family folly, but of that pride that wreaks most men’s lives whether they are small and insignificant or grand and powerful.
The actresses who play Lear’s daughters are a bit of a pale disappointment. Both Catherine McCormick as the cruel Goneril, and Lauren O’Neil, the even more brutal as Regan, don’t seem to know the characters well enough. Their performances are intelligent, but lacking almost entirely in the cold-bloodedness required. They don’t have the toughness in their manner or in their voices. Even Isabella Laughland, who plays the young and tender Cordelia, seems to be distant.
Some of the male characters are more on Langella’s level, bringing fire and conviction to their scenes. 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 confidant, cool and comical as Gloucester’s evil illegitimate son. Chu Omambala is the good man of the Earl of Albany, while Tim Treloar is the wicked one, the Duke of Cornwall. Sebastian Armesto, as the true son of Gloucester, is outstanding playing the two roles of Edgar and the madman Poor Tom.
Jackson does well 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 lighted the production with a true dramatic sense.
But the show resides on Langella’s shoulders and he takes possession of a heroic King Lear.