Theater review: ‘King Lear’

A mighty monarch falls
January 22, 2014 Updated: January 22, 2014

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Directed by Angus Jackson and imported from the Chichester Festival Theatre in Chichester, England, the current production of King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) stars the company’s sole American, Frank Langella, in the title role.

Mr. Langella’s performance permeates the production and is the glue that holds the show together. From the time he enters as the arrogant but aged king who is about to divide his kingdom between his three daughters and retire from his kingly duties, he compels all eyes.

William Shakespeare’s King Lear has interested and excited audiences for several hundred years—why its continuing appeal?

It is, arguably, one of the most compelling and all-encompassing stories of the basic emotional and psychic needs of the human being, particularly as relating to the need for insight and understanding of oneself—and the consequences of their lack.

Is Lear to be understood as an allegory or as the specific story of one particular king? There appear to be countless interpretations of the play, which perhaps accounts for its fascination over the years to peoples of many countries and cultures. (The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is an offshoot of the Lear story.)

Accenting the possible fairy tale quality of the story (remember Cinderella and the two evil stepsisters?), the three daughters in Lear must declare their exclusive love for their father in order for each to earn the much prized third of his kingdom.

The two oldest, Goneril (Catherine McCormack) and Regan (Lauren O’Neil), oozing hypocrisy, pass the test with flying colors. For them, the end justifies the means.

Sweet Cordelia (Isabella Laughland), the youngest and best beloved of Lear, cannot “heave my heart into my mouth … to love my father all.”

Lear, failing to comprehend Cordelia’s integrity and the sly opportunism of her sisters, disinherits her, ceding her share of the kingdom to the other two, thus setting in motion the dire events that follow.

In a parallel plotline, Lear’s friend Gloucester (Denis Conway) is duped by his jealous, illegitimate son, Edmund (Max Bennett), into believing that his true son, Edgar (Sebastian Armesto), is plotting his demise.

Goneril and Regan, who now hold the regal power of which Lear has foolishly divested himself, viciously prevent him from visiting them.

Lear escapes to the moors along with his beloved Fool (Harry Melling). Here the weather itself becomes a weapon against him, as he must try to survive a pummeling storm. (An actual rainstorm flourishes onstage, courtesy Water Sculptures).

Lear, unable to withstand the painful stresses of his new and unpleasant life, goes mad.

Meanwhile, Lear and the Fool have met up with the now homeless Edgar, who to protect himself has metamorphosed into Poor Tom of Bedlam, roaming the moors, a lunatic dressed in rags, his skin blackened with mud.

Lear gradually comes to realize that there is such a thing as “an unaccommodated man,” one of many born without great advantages, as was Lear.

Ultimately, events break political barriers; battles take place. Edmund and Edgar vie in a fatal duel.

Most tragically, Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner, and, the order for cancellation of the young woman’s execution arriving too late, she is put to death.

In the final scene, Lear carries Cordelia onstage and mourns her corpse in an acutely touching scene (to say nothing of the fact that the 76-year-young Langella carries her easily).

The production is traditional. Overall, it is serviceable, but lacks surprises. The design team does its job well: a good set by Robert Innes Hopkins, indicating a clear map of Britain on the stage floor; effective lighting by Peter Mumford; and likewise music by Isobel Waller-Bridge.

As for the performers, I cannot honestly praise one above the other—except for three-time Tony Award winner Frank Langella. This is his show. It is remarkable achievement for a remarkable actor, who was happily persuaded to take on the role of Lear before he might become unable to fulfill its stringent vocal and physical requirements.

BAM offers a Theater Gala on Feb. 6 (BAM Patron Services 719-636-4182) and two interesting talks regarding this production (Jan. 30 and Feb. 1).

King Lear
Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street
Brooklyn, NY
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or visit BAM.org
Running Time: 3 hours
Closes: Feb. 9

Diana Barth writes and publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. For information: diabarth@juno.com.

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