Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review: King Lear (Chichester at BAM)

Frank Langella explains to the balcony
how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to be Lear
(photo: Richard Termine)
A month or two ago, I saw my 150th production of Shakespeare. With so many evenings drawn from the same set of plays, I tend to value the innovative approach and the unique staging over quality executed conventionally. A case in point: BAM’s production of King Lear, acclaimed by most critics, left me cool. The treatment felt old-fashioned—it favored the melodrama and external emotion over complexity, nuance, and an expression of consciousness through language. But the show wasn’t a wash-out: quality executed conventionally. Plus, I saw facets of the play I’d never noticed before.

Mostly, this Lear (from the Chichester Festival Theater) feels familiar, unrisky, a little bit rote. Angus Jackson locates it in a generic medieval England: lots of leather and metal on the costumes, a stage dressed with wooden planks and stone, and set with flaming braziers and a gothic throne. The cast declaims its verse straight to the balcony. In the lead role, Frank Langella plays each scene well—how could he not, with that rich baritone built for the sonorities of Shakepearean verse? But he’s not a coherent psyche, he’s a flipbook of mental states. The show may provide that old Aristotelian “pity and terror”, but it’s apprehended from afar. Lacking psychological depth or a tragic sensibility, covered too deeply by a melodramatic artifice out of the 19C, this Lear seems more like a historical pageant than a drama.

Again, that pageantry is executed quite well. And to me, it also reveals an archetypal layer to Lear, one that prefigures Shakespeare’s tragicomic romances. As Lear damns each of his daughters in turn (with Langella shaking his fist at the rafters), the repetition takes on a ritual meaning. Edmund and Edgar, now flattened into Bad Son and Good Son, revert to their antecedent roles as players in a morality: one tempting his father to evil and the other working to salvage that soul. Note also the strangely stiff formality to that subplot’s act 5 climax, as the trumpets sound thrice to summon Edgar for trial-by-combat.
Lear cracks as the designer drenches his set with real H20
(photo: Richard Termine)

While this Lear shows how the play foreshadows the style of the romances, I doubt that’s its intention. The central image of Jackson’s show is the old standby, Lear howling at the storm. But it’s rare that an evening’s most memorable moment is its centerpiece. Long after I’ve forgotten this particular tempest (except maybe the actual torrent of water onstage), I’ll recall the quiet beat when Edgar describes the chalk cliffs of Dover to his sightless father. Here, as an aid to his imagination he blindfolds himself, in mirror to his father’s bandages, and then recites the speech. The action helps the viewer become a listener, and enlists the mind’s eye to conjure the vision. I’ll remember it as a perfectly staged moment of Shakespeare.


King Lear
Chichester Festival Theater at BAM
director: Angus Jackson