Age has done very little to diminish the raw power contained within Frank Langella. Although 76 years old, the man has not lost an ounce of stage presence and carries himself with a magisterial gravitas even during the most difficult of scenes. Following his turn as the king-turned-madman at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex, England—his first Shakespeare role in over 30 years—Langella returns as the unfortunate Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a performance that will not be soon forgotten.
Enthroned before a forest of teetering columns above an image of a thrice-divided England, Lear holds an audience for his three daughters to transfer control to their hands. To get their land, Lear’s elder two daughters, Goneril and Regan—played with oozing charm and blazing eyes by Catherine McCormack and Lauren O’Neil, respectively—kowtow to his whims, flattering him with grandiose expressions of love. Meanwhile, his youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia (Isabella Laughland), refuses to indulge him. Springing from his position, Langella’s Lear turns violent and vindictive, disowning Cordelia and exiling both her and his adviser Kent (Steven Pacey), who dared speak in her favor.
Meanwhile, within the family of Gloucester (Denis Conway), upheaval is also at hand. The devious bastard Edmund—a schemer with no sense of solidarity to any but his own ambitions played glibly by Max Bennett—frames his brother Edgar (Sebastian Armesto) and is named heir to his father’s estate and title.
As his daughters assume control of the divided kingdom, Lear becomes increasingly unwelcome within their houses as they demand greater compliance of him than he is willing to give. Confronted by both daughters at Gloucester’s castle, he opts to stay with neither and heads out into the brewing storm, accompanied by his fool, the amusing and melancholy Harry Melling, and his servant, the disguised Kent.
Here, at King Lear’s lowest point, at the moment of his descent into madness, the heavens open up onstage, and a torrent of rain comes storming down upon him. Competing against the crash of thunder and pounding of rain, Lear, drenched to the skin, holds his own and trumpets his dismay and discontent to the high heavens, with few around to hear him. Dragging him from the storm into shelter, his companions come across Edgar, playing a very convincing madman to hide from his brother’s plot. It is in this role, the madman rather than the brother or son, in which Armesto excels. Back at the castle, Regan discovers Gloucester’s sympathies for the king and, without remorse or hesitation, removes his eyes.
Unfortunately, as Langella brought the play to a climactic moment, throwing himself into the role and the rain with the vigor of a man half his age, his supporting cast could not keep up the pressure following intermission. Instead, with Langella absent for much of the final acts, there was no person to fill such an enormous power vacuum. While events spiraled toward their inevitable conclusion of death and destruction for all, it was only when Langella carried Cordelia’s body across stage and collapsed beside her that the balance of the play was truly restored.
“King Lear” plays at the the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St.) through Feb. 9. There are $10 rush tickets available at the BAM box office 90 minutes before each performance for students with a valid ID.