Let’s start with a rhetorical question: Can you have too many King Lears? No matter what the answer, the productions will still come thick and fast. And even if you are tempted to say yes, you soon realise you are wrong. As with all Shakespeare, there is always room for more. The much-anticipated (not least by me) King Lear at the National is only a couple of months away, but first we have the Chichester Festival Theatre production directed by Angus Jackson. Presented at the Minerva theatre (the smaller more intimate space at Chichester), it has its own big name in the title role: Frank Langella is a heavyweight of american theatre and well acquainted with London stage. The production will transfer to Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in 2014. In other words, it’s a King Lear that can’t be ignored.
And in many ways, it pays off. It’s clear, concise with strong imagery and drive. Set (by Robert Innes Hopkins) and lighting (by Peter Mumford) are magnificent: much of the light is filtered through asymmetrical columns at the back of the stage, the effect a backlit shadowy fog illuminating tragic souls. The floor of the stage echoes the outline of a map, and that floor is later stripped away, foreshadowing the destruction of the kingdom. The final battle is powerfully evoked with blind Gloucester sitting on stage alone while the sound and fury of war rages around him (and us). More distinctly, the storm is real, inescapable and punishing, with gallons of water pouring onto the actors in the middle of the stage.
Frank Langella is a powerful King Lear. Quite literally, he is a thundering presence, holding everyone onto his grip like a vice. When he loses that grip, his power turns to rage. While entirely convincing, his performance can have a wearying effect, as much of it is of such high voltage. Nevertheless, his final scene, modulated with tenderness and loss, is heartbreaking.
Other stand outs in the cast were Max Bennett as Edmund and Harry Melling as the Fool. Bennett makes Edmund a vital feral presence. Edmund’s immorality aside, he is missed every time he is not on stage and Goneril’s and Regan’s affections seem entirely justified. Bennett is also playful with the language and the audience, giving every line a conversational teasing vibe. Harry Melling’s Fool is quick with the jokes, skillful with the language, but also constantly alert to danger. He carries himself with the air of man close to the abyss, careful, deliberate but also open to the movement of other people’s souls. On a side note (and this is the first time I noticed this in performance), he sings Feste’s Song – “the wind and the rain” – from Twelfth Night as they seek shelter from the storm. It’s nice to imagine all Shakespeare’s Fools hanging together and exchanging tips.
I was less satisfied with Sebastian Armesto’s Edgar and Isabella Laughland’s Cordelia. Armesto is too open-mouthed naive, not quite convincing when playing the turbulence and strength in Edgar’s soul. Cordelia is an elusive part at the best of times, and Isabella Laughland – so compelling in Nick Payne’s The Same Deep Water As Me – feels vague and a bit lost.
Performances – especially in Shakespearean productions – can blossom and take interesting turns during the run of the play. This production is sturdy enough to allow for this. I would be interested to hear comments from performances later in the run.