By: David Sheward
The final scene in the Chichester Festival Theater’s production of King Lear is a bold variation on one of the most familiar en
dings in all of Shakespeare. Instead of carrying on his dead daughter Cordelia as most Lears do, Frank Langella drags her lifeless body in from the wings. The first sight of them together is shocking, sad, and perfectly logical. The formerly mad monarch is in his 80s and has just slain his daughter’s assassin, so it makes sense that he would not have the strength to pick her up.
Most Lears take this climactic moment to draw attention to themselves with a curtain-falling histrionic display, but Langella focuses on the character’s weakness as he futilely shakes Cordelia’s nonresponsive form, desperately attempting to bring her back to life. It’s a truly heartbreaking finale.
But, this innovative climax is the one of the few startlingly intense sequences in an otherwise by-the-numbers production from director Angus Jackson. The American Langella is supported by a competent British cast, but they fail to elicit the passion and purpose to make an oft-produced classic come to new life. There is a spark of bad-boy humor in Max Bennett’s evil Edmund and a nasty, oft-center quirk to Lauren O’Neil’s crafty Regan, but these are not enough to lift the production to above-average status.
Luckily, Langella is fascinating to watch in the aforementioned ending and in a frightening mad scene. After having been driven insane by his thankless daughters Goneril and Regan, Lear encounters the blind Gloucester on a desolate beach. The two men, abandoned by their offspring, counsel each other with seeming gibberish that is strangely wise. Langella effortlessly switches from pitiful old fool to psychotic madman. One minute he is tenderly cradling the pathetic Gloucester, and the next he is strangling him while laughing maniacally. Langella also conveys the king’s strength hobbled by the infirmities of age as he stoops and shuffles slowly.
Jackson’s is a perfectly valid production, it’s just not very exciting or involving. Robert Innes Hopkins’s wooden set resembles a lodge in a mountain resort. Late in the action, a series of dark beams lowers a few inches to convey the desolation of the realm. Oooo, scary! There is also full-blown storm with tons of real water as Lear rages at his fate, but all that rain doesn’t make a convincing tragedy blossom.
Jan. 17-Feb. 8. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. Tue-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $25-125. (718) 636-4100. www.bam.org
Photo: Richard Termine