Monday, February 3, 2014

"King Lear" - A Performance for the Ages

By Judd Hollander

Frank Langella gives a marvelous performance as the title character in a sturdy production of William Shakespeare's King Lear. Currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the play presents a classic example of a man who learns too late the folly of pride, arrogance and the dangers of making assumptions.

In ancient Britain, Lear, now nearing 80, has decided to divest himself of his throne and all the power and responsibilities that come with it as he begins to make the final "crawl towards death". He plans to divide his kingdom into thirds, each section going to one of his three daughters. However before Lear makes his bequests, he demands each of his children tell him how much they love him. His first two daughters Goneril (Catherine McCormack) and Regan (Lauren O'Neil), married to Albany (Chu Omambala) and Cornwall (Tim Treloar) respectively, swear their undying love for him above all else, but when his third and favorite child Cordelia (Isabella Laughland) says she only loves Lear as a daughter loves a father, reserving her greatest love for her future husband, Lear becomes enraged and disinherits her. When Kent (Steven Pacey), a noblemen and Lear's long-time faithful friend desperately tries to get Lear to reverse his edict, he finds himself banished for his pains.

It is Lear's intention to spend his retirement shuttling between the estates of his two remaining daughters, staying a month with each, along with the 100 knights he has in his company. However Goneril and Regan, who were always more interested in what their father can do for them rather than his actual welfare, have other ideas. Not relishing having to play host to his vast entourage and demanding he start exhibiting the proper respect now due them, the two set their own conditions for Lear's visitations. His sudden change of circumstances forcing Lear to realize just how impotent he has become. A fact his Fool (Harry Melling) keeps reminding him, and which causes Lear's aged mind to begin to crack under the strain. Refusing to surrender to his daughter's commands, Lear finds himself left to the mercy of the elements, his only remaining companions being the aforementioned Fool and the ever-faithful Kent, who has returned to Lear's side in the guise of a servant.

While all this is going on Edmund (Max Bennett), the bastard son of the well-regarded Gloucester (Denis Conway), angered by his illegitimate status, sets in motion a scheme whereby his older brother and the legitimate heir Edgar (Sebastian Armesto) is seemingly plotting Gloucester's death. As a result Edgar is forced to flee while Edmund takes pains to make sure his father does not find out the truth of the matter. Eventually these two plotlines come together when Lear encounters the nearly naked Edgar, who has disguised himself as a mad beggar; while Edmund chooses to side with Goneril and her just as ruthless husband Cornwall against Gloucester - who has remained loyal to Lear.

King Lear is one of the most oft-performed plays in the Shakespeare canon, containing not only a choice title part for any actor of a certain age, but also numerous examples of generational conflict to which most people can relate. Also present are underlying messages that with age does not always come wisdom and how pride unchecked can quickly bring one to ruin. A fact Lear soon learns to his sorrow. 

One of the more appealing elements of the play is the surprising amount of humor in the text. The lighter moments often existing side by side with the darker ones. One such example is when Lear in a rage screams how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have thankless child, and then, shortly after meeting the disguised Edgar, asking the younger man if his condition is due to the actions of the beggar's daughters. It's this interesting mixture of the two genres that makes the play move so well.

Langella is wonderful as Lear, the character at first wearily but ably wearing the mantle of authority he has carried for decades, along with a sometimes violent temper. However once he becomes simply another common man he learns that traits tolerated when he wore the crown are not always accepted when one lacks the power to back them up. As such, he finds there is naught he can do but rage against his tormentors, disintegrating both mentally and physically right before the audience's eyes till nothing is left but a pitiful old man. Though Lear is also capable of moments of tenderness and remorse, they often come too late to save himself and those he loves.

Bennett is nicely appealing as Edmund, at first coming off as a sort of mischievous rogue who carries out his machinations with explanations and asides to the audience all delivered in a witty and matter of fact way that makes the character somewhat endearing. All of which help to leaven out the deadly seriousness of the situation, as he uses everyone in his orbit as helpless pawns in order to further his own ends. Those ends include trying to decide whether he will offer his sword - and his intimate services - to either Goneril, who is disgusted with the indecision of her husband Albany, or to the recently-widowed Regan. Each sister offering themselves to Edmund to help ensure the continuation of their own positions of power.

McCormack and O'Neill are good as Goneril and Regan, the two initially appearing as loyal and loving daughters; this quickly proving to be a disguise to hide their ultimate ruthlessness and lust for power. Allies with one another when expedient, they are each more than willing to turn on each other if circumstances warrant.

Pacey makes a good Kent, a man determined to help Lear in spite of himself, while Conway is a believable and occasionally bombastic Gloucester, but who, like Lear, is unable to see the treachery in his own family until it is almost too late. Pacey also gets in some humorous moments of his own, such as when Kent attacks a servant of Goneril's for insulting Lear. Melling makes an interesting Fool and Armesto works well as Edgar, the final showdown between Edgar and Edmund both well-choreographed and realistically presented. Laughland is effective as Cordelia, her few scenes showing this character to be both Lear's conscience and one who is wise beyond her years.

Angus Jackson's direction is very strong throughout, allowing the different elements of the show to come to the fore as needed. There is also very little feeling of anything being padded or poorly paced, the show moving along well despite its lengthy running time.

Robert Innes Hopkins' sets work well and his various costumes are nicely done. Peter Mumford's lighting is very good here and the various effects, such as the storm scene are quite effective indeed. The only major technical problem is that it was hard to hear what was being said by some of the characters at times, especially during the first half of he show.

Strong performances, good direction and mostly good technical aspects make this a King Lear well worth catching.

Also in the cast are Rob Heaps, Rendah Haywood, Tom Mothersdale, William Reay, Michael Sheldon, Part Thakerar and Alan Vicary.

King Lear

by William Shakespeare

Featuring: Sebastian Armesto (Edgar), Max Bennett (Edmund), Denis Conway (Gloucester), Rob Heaps (France/King/Guard), Rendah Haywood (Ensemble/Understudy), Frank Langella (King Lear), Isabella Laughland (Cordelia), Catherine McCormack (Goneril), Harry Melling (Fool), Tom Mothersdale (Oswald), Chu Omambala (Albany), Lauren O'Neil (Regan), Steven Pacey (Kent), William Reay (Burgundy/Captain/Guard), Michael Sheldon (French Commander/Servant), Parth Thakerar (Servant/Herald/Messenger), Tim Treloar (Cornwall), Alan Vicary (Doctor)

Set and Costume Design: Robert Innes Hopkins

Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Music Composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge
Sound Design: Fergus O'Hare
Fight Director: Terry King
Casting Director: Gabrielle Dawes
Directed by Angus Jackson

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or
Running Time: Three Hours, including one intermission
Closes: February 9, 2014

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