Given Frank Langella’s rock-solid stage background, it should come as no surprise that the old lion makes a formidable monarch in “King Lear.” Under Angus Jackson’s firm helming, the Chichester Festival Theater production of the Shakespeare tragedy is all business — no bells, no whistles, no bluster. Super-clean staging and tight ensemble work provide strong support for Langella, who turns in a thoughtful, moving, and well-rounded perf that is only the teensiest bit hammy. (Die, already!)
From the Prince of Homburg to Cyrano, Dracula and Richard M. Nixon, heroically scaled heroes and villains have always appealed to Langella. So rather than being a stretch for him, playing an outsized character like Lear seems to be a logical career move. Just the same, his performance has such breadth and nuance that it’s something of a revelation.
Although the aged monarch is no longer at the height of his powers when he first strides onstage with his full court, Langella makes sure that he’s still a compelling figure — and every inch a king. Lear’s ego is huge when he reflects on the grandeur of his kingdom, and his rage is monstrous when his beloved youngest daughter refuses to flatter him for her share of his riches. But by the end of the scene, under the thesp’s subtle touch, the old king has already begun to shrink in size.
Langella guides Lear through his further decline and ultimate breakdown with the same measure of sensitivity, chipping away at his sense of pride and grasp of power until he ends up on the heath, howling in the wind. But he also brings out the gentlest Lear I’ve ever seen, tenderly cradling the sad Fool (Harry Melling) and the wretched Poor Tom (Sebastian Armesto) in his arms.
Those bone-chilling scenes on the heath where Lear goes mad and the blinded Gloucester (a wholly sympathetic Denis Conway) goes to kill himself are the centerpiece of the play, and helmer Jackson has set them up with care. The austere design of Robert Innes Hopkins’s unit set — plain planked stage, towering wood-beamed “trees,” dramatic backlighting — sends a strong message about the loneliness of madness and despair.
The court scenes seem too sparse a platform for the machinations of Lear’s cruel daughters, Goneril and Regan (Catherine McCormack and Lauren O’Neil, both extremely scary). And the unattractive costumes do these royal ladies no great service. Even the young and pretty Isabella Laughland, playing Cordelia, looks frumpy in her shapeless colorless sack.
The men at court do infinitely better in tight tights and well-fitted, smartly tailored jackets. As the dastardly bastard Edmund, Max Bennett gets to wear the tightest of those tight tights, cutting such a fine figure that it’s no wonder both Goneril and Regan jump his bones. But there’s another reason why Bennett is so eye-catching — he’s a fantastic actor. Vocally assured and quick on his feet, he claims the stage with total assurance. But it’s not all for show. There’s an intelligence to his delivery that makes every word of every line of every speech perfectly understandable. Wonder what he’ll be doing in, say, 40 years.