Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St. between Ashland & Rockwell Pl.
Through February 9, $25-$125
Bayonne-born Frank Langella has some rather big shoes to fill as he steps onto the stage as King Lear at BAM’s Harvey Theater, site of two recent memorable productions, the 2007 Royal Shakespeare Company version starring Sir Ian McKellen and the 2011 presentation from the Donmar Warehouse boasting Sir Derek Jacobi in the title role. But the three-time Tony winner is more than up to the task in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s intense production of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. Although there’s a sizable hitch in his gait when he first appears, hunched over a bit, Langella’s Lear is no feeble king at the start. There’s a strength and power to his body, the way he raises his arms and sits on the throne, that belies his seventy-six years. (In comparison, McKellen was sixty-eight when he played Lear at BAM, Jacobi seventy-four.) As he asks his daughters, Cordelia (Isabella Laughland), Goneril (Catherine McCormack), and Regan (Lauren O’Neil), to declare their love for him in return for their share of his kingdom, it’s clear Lear has not gone over the edge quite yet, even as he rails against his former favorite, Cordelia, who can only say she loves him as any daughter loves a father. But he soon feels his faculties starting to slip, begging the fool (a terrific Harry Melling), “Oh, don’t let me go mad; not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me sane. I don’t want to be mad!” But it’s too late. When Lear comes out for the second act, in tattered clothes and barefoot, wearing a ridiculous straw hat, it’s clear there’s no return from his downward spiral.
The closest Langella, who has not done a lot of Shakespeare in his long career, previously came to Lear was when Lee J. Cobb was playing the ill-fated king in 1968 at the Vivian Beaumont, in repertory with William Gibson’s A Cry of Players, in which Langella appeared as the Bard. But now that he has taken on the role himself, he attacks it with a hunger that energizes director Angus Jackson’s streamlined production. Robert Innes Hopkins’s spare set is backed by large wooden beams, some teetering, as if about to fall, like Lear. During the storm, a hard rain pours over Lear, bathed in a stunning blue light, the fool holding on to him as if trying to prevent him from melting away right then and there. Max Bennett is a splendidly conniving Edmund, while Sebastian Armesto excels as he transforms from the wronged Edgar to the wild creature Tom, leading his blinded father, Gloucester (Denis Conway), to his apparent doom. Langella’s early sturdiness makes his tragic fall all the more heartbreaking as he cradles Cordelia at the end, his body weak and frail, his mind realizing just what he’s done. It’s another memorable moment in yet another memorable Lear at the Harvey.