In his recent quasi-memoirs, Frank Langella lives up to his first name, candidly describing the sexual juju that, in his youth, he so graciously shared with his older leading ladies. It’s outrageous boasting, of course, but completely believable if you’ve ever seen him onstage, because he sure likes to screw with an audience. I can only hope he left Rita Hayworth and Yvonne DeCarlo as satisfied as he leaves us.
That he manages to push all our buttons even in King Lear is a sign that his amatory imagination has not withered with age. (He’s 76.) Perhaps of necessity, Langella finds the libertine in Lear: the old fascinator whose beautiful poetry and theatrical poses barely disguise an erotic delight in power, even if it’s thwarted. No one calls down the rain or curses an ingrate better. (Langella relishes lashing into lines like this one, to his eldest daughter, Goneril: “Thou art a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood.”) That his words no less than his actions are now, in his dotage, hollow — well, that’s the root of the tragedy; its flower is the realization that “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” or the world and its grievances. He has been a bad father, and thus a bad king.
It takes a ham to play a ham, and Langella, more than any recent Lear I’ve seen, including Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline, and Christopher Plummer, knows just how to serve it up. Whenever he’s onstage, this production, imported from the Chichester Festival Theatre and directed by Angus Jackson, snaps into focus. (At 6-foot-4, Langella barely needs to do anything to be at the center of attention.) He structures the king’s disintegration beautifully; you can feel the postural and synaptic decline as his virile briskness in the first scene — in which he mercilessly disinherits his youngest daughter, Cordelia, because she fails to flatter him adequately — gradually slows to a confused and halting terror, and his thunder becomes croons and cries. At one point, as his madness comes on, he offers a series of horrifying baby shrieks, unknowable in the depth or nature of their pain. In the end (abetted by a sepulchral shroud of a costume) he seems skeletal, barely extant.
When Langella is not onstage, though, the production grows shaggy. With one major exception, this isn’t the fault of the actors, who mostly speak the verse well and know how to give the illusion that words are living actions. (Sadly, the Cordelia is such a simpering presence you wish she’d been exiled farther.) But I’m not the first to note that the play has structural problems that often sink it in production — the more so when the individual scenes are cleanly directed, as they are here. Shakespeare’s bizarre mix of tonalities, and his what-the-hell vaudeville of doubles and disguises and slapstick on the heath, make a faithful rendering an inchoate one. Even Langella cannot always shape the experience to his liking in these moments; when he emerges in his madness wearing an inverted bird’s nest crown, the audience titters.
Still, like the character, the play is profound even in incoherence. Shakespeare had the penetration to see and show how the “cracked” relationships within families parallel those within societies, and how the ruination of one threatens the ruination of the other. He builds King Lear on a firm belief in the human nature of the state — a nature easier to see in ancient monarchies, where the state and its head were one. (Lear’s sons-in-law have no names but that of the lands they control: Cornwall, Albany, France.) As such, inner goodness is not enough. Cordelia, at the play’s etymological heart, is mute; Gloucester is eventually blinded. (You may not want to eat hard-boiled eggs for a few days after seeing how.) Outer goodness — love put into word and action — is crucial, as both Cordelia and Lear learn too late.
Which is why we go back to see plays like King Lear. Still, I confess at this point preferring the privacy of my own iPad to absorb the heart-stopping poetry, the hundreds of images that, onstage, race by like taxis you can’t quite flag down. (This time I did catch Lear’s instantly legible description of beggars’ clothing as “loop’d and window’d raggedness.”) It’s a shame, in some ways, that the play is produced so much more often than it’s read. In the reading, it’s nigh perfect. It must be seen to be disbelieved.
King Lear is at BAM’s Harvey Theater through February 9.