by: JK Clarke
King Lear is easily one of the saddest and most tragic of Shakespeare’s plays. True, there are others with with equally devastating consequences, but from Act I, Scene ii, Lear is a tragedy in freefall. And though there are laugh-inducing lines, there are no happy or hopeful moments like the love affair of Romeo & Juliet or the ascending triumphs of Macbeth. Only Hamlet, which has uproarious (though insidious) interludes, comes so close in overwhelming disaster. The Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of King Lear, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, dives into the tragedy with both feet, focusing intensely on the folly of fathers leading to the unconscionable betrayal of offspring.
The first to offend is the Duke of Gloucester (Denis Conway), whose parallels to the King are played up in this production. His bastard son, Edmund (an intense Max Bennett) of whom “there was good sport in his making,” takes a backseat to legitimate son, Edgar (terrific Sebastian Armesto) touching off a rage of major consequence in the former. It’s a huge error in judgment for which Gloucester pays dearly. And, Lear, artfully played by Frank Langella, in a senior moment, rages at his seemingly ungrateful daughter, Cordelia, and banishes her for the petty crime of not expressing her affection appropriately: “. . . Mend your speech a little,/Lest it mar your fortunes.” Does it ever. His, as well, for he has pinioned himself between two sinister daughters and alienated the one who actually cared for his well-being.
Director Angus Jackson has a lot going for him in this production. The BAM Harvey theater feels beautifully crumbling and old, a perfect stage for a play about ruin; and the venue is magnificently augmented by Robert Innes Hopkins absolutely stunning set — along with Peter Mumford’s beautiful lighting — that features large beams serving as both forest and castle stanchions, as well as a real thunderstorm on stage.
Additionally, Jackson’s directorial and editorial choices make for a strong, fast-flowing play, particularly in the very intense and powerful second half. Langella’s Lear is an imminently believable old man: he is just the right age to be both powerful and doddering, with senility creeping in around the edges, allowing him to make absolutely awful, fateful decisions. Langella is both passionate and tired; strong and weak; brilliant and moronic. He is the quintessential Lear. Even better, Harry Melling (who was Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter movies), plays Lear’s fool as a bit of an emotionally disturbed savant. To attempt to diagnose his exact malady would be inappropriate, but the idea makes sense: who else but one who couldn’t function in society despite his brilliance would be more appropriate as a king’s Fool? And this Fool, despite his witty, acid tongue, is truly, truly angry with the King for his boneheadedness (which, clearly, the Fool cannot comprehend: he doesn’t have the social coping skills to make sense of it). His disappearance at the end of the play (and, some would suggest, suicide) makes sense in the light of his rage. It’s a particularly clever way to play the role, and Melling does so beautifully.
This production’s only shortcoming might be the apparently reduced presence of Cordelia (Isabella Laughland). Not only do her lines seem to have been cut back, but she is a meek presence. Rather than a principled daughter (with an intensity clearly inherited from her royal father), who will not be a sycophant like her sisters, she is baby-faced and meek: a shrinking violet, befuddled by her father’s betrayal.
King Lear has always been an entertaining play based on the audience’s knowledge that everything is falling apart and there’s nothing that can be done about it. It’s a slow-motion train wreck from which we cannot avert our eyes. But this production adds lessons to the mix: the sins of the fathers shall be returned upon them, and in most painful, tragic fashion. When it’s all said and done, one can only hope that it’s not so awful for the next generation.
King Lear. Chichester Festival Theater. Directed by Angus Jackson. Through February 9 at at BAM’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY). www.bam.org/theater/2014/king-lear
*Photo: Richard Termine