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King Lear

No tears. No cause. No cause.

Chichester Festival Theatre, BAM Harvey Theater, New York, N.Y.
January 11, 2014, Seats A 105-107 (right stalls)
Directed by Angus Jackson

My litmus test for a theatrically successful King Lear is how much eyewater flows at the end, when the mad Lear reunites with his youngest daughter; when Lear, howling, carries that daughter, dead, on stage; when Lear's heart finally, finally cracks and he departs the rack of this tough world; when the stalwart Albany finally gives up, an utterly devastated Kent has no further reason to live, and Edgar is left with utter desolation.

Powerful as it is, this Chichester Festival Theatre production of William Shakespeare's great tragedy with Frank Langella in the title role is the kind of intellectually astute production that doesn't leave you wiping your eyes with woe at the end but rather stroking your chin with admiration.

Lear in red tunk and brown pants pointing up remonstratively as Goneril in blue cloak and Regan in red dress look on in irritation
King Lear (Frank Langella) rails as his two elder daughters, Goneril (Catherine McCormack, left) and Regan (Lauren O'Neil) look on in the Chichester Festival production of King Lear at BAM Harvey Theater. Below, Lear with Gloucester (Denis Conway) and Edgar (Sebastian Armesto). Photo by Richard Termine, BAM.

Director Angus Jackson, using the Quarto version of the play (among other changes, Albany rather than Edgar speaks the last quatrain, which to my mind illustrates how much Shakespeare improved the play in the Folio edition), allows each actor to develop individual roles with intriguing but apt interpretations. The exercise illuminates how richly textured King Lear is; it is not just Lear's play but Edgar's, and Edmund's, and Gloucester's, and Kent's, and Albany's, and Cornwall's, and the Fool's, and Cordelia's, and even Burgundy's and France's.

In particular, whether intentional or not, this production shifts the play's axis onto Goneril and Regan. That may be as much credit to the enthralling performances of Catherine McCormack and Lauren O'Neil, respectively, as to directorial focus. With two wicked daughters so attractive (intellectually as well as physically) counterpoised with a good but rather vacuous youngest daughter (Isabella Laughland as Cordelia), some might consider the news that Goneril and Regan are dead as the production's most tragic moment.

The play is set in the age of some time ago. Robert Innes Hopkins' set is a forest of wood-looking slab pillars as a backdrop with an old throne at the center, and his costumes are medieval tunics and simple britches for the men and plain gowns and cloaks for the women. At the start, the wood-plank stage has shapes representing a map of Britain, and as the daughters testify to their fealty, they are placed on their geographical inheritances; Chu Omambala as Albany is ever respectful, but Tim Treloar's Cornwall looks as if he could pull out a tape measure, so gleeful is he of his new estate. When the two courting princes are introduced, Burgundy (William Reay) seems more interested in the large swath of land depicted on the stage than the young, forlorn woman downstage. When he learns that Cordelia and that section of the map are forever disjoined, he gives her over. France (Rob Heaps), however, sees the long-term value of Cordelia in and of herself; but Heaps doesn't give this a romantic reading. Rather, this is a French king who gleans an opportunity to later invade Britain and obtain more than just one-third of the country.

Such subtle readings of the verse in this production reveal the characters' deepest motivations. Certain lines that inexplicably stick out in the course of the action end up being key character readings. "Trust in thy single virtue," Omambala's Albany tells Edmund as he prepares to face Edgar in combat, "for thy soldiers, all levied in my name, have in my name took their discharge." This line I've never noticed before in 10 viewings and countless readings of this play, but it speaks to Albany's wherewithal. Omambala's Albany finds comfort and, perhaps, political expediency in stability. He has genuine respect for Lear, and he considers hosting the old king not only his duty but also an alliance. Similarly, he is slow to move against the invading forces of France, but when he does, he makes sure that he incorporates Edmund's forces under his command.

With Kent (Steven Pacey) in the stocks, the Fool (Harry Melling) tells him to "Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill lest it break thy neck with following." This is apparently the Fool's own creed. He loiters for no apparent reason after Lear has left the Albany estate until Goneril sends him packing, and it explains the character's mysterious disappearance at the end of 3.6: Melling's Fool watches Kent and Gloucester (Denis Conway) lead Lear out, then he turns and exits another direction, having let go of Lear's wheel (in this Quarto version, Edgar remains on stage with a short soliloquy).

Edmund (Max Bennett) early on calls Edgar (Sebastian Armesto) "a brother noble, whose nature is so far from doing harms that he suspects none." That may be true, but "noble" means Edgar is well trained in combat arms, and his nature is manifested in his survival instincts. When we see the unarmed Edgar swiftly and efficiently disarm and kill Oswald (Tom Mothersdale), we know that Edmund doesn't have much of a chance against his "noble" brother who is otherwise so far from doing harm. However, Edgar's motivation for maintaining his disguise from his father even after Gloucester has been blinded and cast out onto the heath has no basis in the verse. In this production, Armesto's Edgar several times is about to reveal himself to Gloucester, but something interrupts him. Frankly, this is more satisfying than Shakespeare's explanation that Edgar's "trifl[ing] thus with [Gloucester's] despair is done to cure it."

Goneril in blue and Regan in red are kindred spirits at the beginning. They also are smart, and their expressions of love in the pageant that opens the play sound heartfelt (by contrast, because this production cuts Cordelia's asides, depriving the audience of her heartfelt concerns, her pointed nonanswers to her father come across as coquettish teasing gone wrong). If Cordelia is of marrying age—say, 18—her two elder sisters might yet be in their early 20s, and that's how McCormack and O'Neil play them. They proceed with a logic that seems more practical than cruel, until the crisis at Gloucester's castle reaches its climax. To this point, the only seeming sociopath is Cornwall (more on Edmund later), whom Treloar plays as a quick-tempered, self-centered jerk who couldn't govern his way out of an outhouse without Regan's management skills. After Cornwall is fatally hurt during the eye-gouging scene, he struggles on the floor as Regan sits by, indifferently watching. Cornwall shouts the line "Give me your arm" as an urgent command to a wife who is not coming to his aid, and she, resignedly, finally does so.

Goneril, meanwhile, is heading back to her estate accompanied by Edmund. Given the two sisters' young ages and that they have husbands who are not only 10 or more years older but more interested in their own statures than their wives, it's easy to see how Goneril and Regan would both fall for the handsome, dashing, and slightly naive Edmund. And with these two women, once they set their sights on a goal, they work out any way possible to achieve it: kindred spirits quickly become warring spitfires. Goneril's suicide is not remorse or giving up; it's realizing that with Edmund mortally wounded and her reputation now likely landing her in a nunnery, death just makes more sense.

Bennett's performance of the bastard Edmund is informed by the play's opening scene when his father, Gloucester, introduces him to Kent. "Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?" Gloucester asks; Edmund does not know the man who is, clearly, one of the most important in court outside the royal family. Edmund is getting his first taste of court, and Bennett makes a point of watching Gloucester for cues on when to bow, what to say, and, generally, how to behave. Edmund is a quick study, obviously, and he plots to gain his brother's inheritance as a matter of greed. His rapid ascent to becoming Duke of Gloucester himself is unlooked-for opportunity, and his behavior is that of a cocky young man lacking a lock-grasp on the knowledge and skills that would merit his cockiness. And don't Goneril and Regan know it: they like both his cockiness and their ability to manipulate it.

They play on their father, too. Langella is a commanding presence as Lear, yet his tragedy is, simply, growing old. He needs reaffirmation of his place on this earth. Cordelia doesn't provide it (for whatever reason in this production), and Kent exacerbates Lear's condition in the blunt language he uses: "What wouldst thou do, old man?" and "See better, Lear." These lines may serve as leitmotifs for the playwright, but they are anathema for Langella's Lear. The king continues under the delusion that he carries authority (despite the disguised Kent later claiming Lear maintains an aura of authority) and that his elder two daughters have more interest in his well-being than in their own. When he realizes his error, his only weapon is tyrannous verbiage. "Thou shalt find that I'll resume the shape which thou dost think I have cast off for ever," he tells Goneril. She knows he won't, and Langella's Lear suspects he can't. The more ardent his remonstrations become, the hollower they sound until, finally, his delusions slip over into pure madness.

Gloucester in brown leather vest kneels as Lear in white pajamas and weed crown stands by with a hand on Gloucester's shoulders and the other hand pointing. Edgar in ragged clothes stands at the back.Langella's most arresting moment comes when he ventures into the inner depths of Lear's madness—not during the storm on the heath (featuring real rain on the stage) or in his interactions with Poor Tom, but when he encounters the blind Gloucester. Clearly, Lear is in a hallucinatory state, but it is layered on the mentality of a man who had been "every inch a king." Langella's Lear is searching, digging through his madness to reconnect with that king. Finally gleaning that he knows Gloucester "well enough," Lear's inner vision jumps all the way back to his infancy. "When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools," he says, removing his crown of weeds. Lear does not find the king he would be, but he does find the man he is.

This turns out to be the emotional climax of this production. The following scene of Lear's reunion with Cordelia lacks resonance, and in the final scene Lear yanks Cordelia's dead body onto the stage rather than carrying her (a tip of the hat to Laughland's bravery for being dragged up steps). The line so many directors find problematic, Lear's "Howl, howl, howl!" that inevitably plays best as three sequential, wailing howls, is here spoken as commands: "Howl," Langella says to some on the stage, gesturing them to do so; he turns to another group and tells them "howl"; finally he looks to us and, I guess, wants us to "howl!" But we all remain "men of stones."

Hmmm, interesting. And so we stroke our chins.

Eric Minton
January 21, 2014

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