Three of the shows I saw in New York had something in common: all were remarkable and memorable although none of them took an especially interesting, inventive, innovative, least of all radical approach. Like Julie Taymor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, all these productions refrained from adopting much of a discernible position vis-a-vis the text they were staging. Unlike Taymor’s Dream, none of these shows had much of visual interest to offer.

What the Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of King Lear, now at BAM, and Shakespeare’s Globe’s productions of Richard III and Twelfth Night, transferred first to London’s West End and now coming to the end of a very successful Broadway run, have in common is that they are driven almost entirely by compelling performances — in particular those of Frank Langella at BAM and Mark Rylance on Broadway. For me, that makes them difficult shows to write about. Conceptually, they offer very little. (I’ll write separately about the fiction of “original practices” that animates the Globe transfers.) I’m sure their directors, Angus Jackson for Lear, Tim Carroll for the other two, ran efficient rehearsals, but I can’t really say anything about either’s perspective on the plays: there is no angle or attitude to analyze here. In that sense, all three of these shows are even more empty than Taymor’s. However, the saving grace in all three cases is the element that is, with one exception, so painfully missing from her Dream: remarkable actors.

Langella’s Lear is a study in decay. At its heart lies the contrast between the actor’s tall, broad-shouldered body and the character’s increasing mental fragility — the pathos of the performance derives in good part from Langella’s sheer physical presence, a presence that makes Lear’s descent into political powerlessness, social marginality, verbal disorientation, and madness all the harder to comprehend, for him and for us. (By which I mean, of course, me. One of the difficulties of writing about acting is the subjectivity that necessarily shapes every response.) Not that Lear’s body remains unaffected by all this: Langella plays him as aged from the start (it takes the king a while to make his halting entrance) and he becomes more hunched and broken as the evening wears on, but even in its physical frailty, his is still a large body.

There are moments of sublimity in this display of the ruin of a man — Gloucester’s phrase, “oh ruined piece of nature” is its key — and it’s framed brilliantly by the ruined and broken proscenium of the BAM’s Harvey Theater. And there are moments when the production, and its star, take all the time such an old and weak body needs: Lear’s entrance with the dead Cordelia seems to last minutes, silent minutes, before the howling begins, and although the corpse winds up in Lear’s arms eventually, Langella pulls and drags Isabella Laughland’s body from the wings and up and down the shallow steps of the set. Here as elsewhere in the show, Lear is tremendously isolated: surrounded by much stronger, more powerful figures, none of whom will interact with him directly, let alone physically. Earlier, it’s Goneril and Regan circling him as they cut the number of knights he should have down to ever shrinking size; now, it’s all his apparent allies standing as mute and inactive spectators to his struggles with Cordelia’s inert body.

On the one hand, the focus on the physical and the production’s willingness to let time pass suggest a strong naturalism, and the show as a whole does not depart from a fundamental commitment to psychological realism. But in moments like Lear’s final entrance, it also leaves room for a heightened theatricality. The set is a slighter expression of this non-naturalistic tendency, with its backdrop of rough-hewn wooden columns and a floor that can be both indoor marble and outdoor rock (and in France, is lit as through a stain-glass window, somewhat heavy-handedly). It’s atmospheric enough, but neither especially striking nor especially meaningful. It serves — as does the production as a whole, including the abstractly medieval costumes. Few things besides Langella’s presence stand out: an unusually severe and unemotional Cordelia (not sure whether that’s a good thing or not); a remarkably callous blinding of Gloucester, with Cornwall tossing the vile jelly offstage like a rotten piece of fruit; a highly original staging of Edgar’s false description of Dover cliff (for which he momentarily covers his eyes with a blindfold, turning the son into the father’s double and allowing the character to see the imaginary scene as blind Gloucester might see it before his mind’s eye). But ultimately, as is so often the case with this play, this is Lear’s Lear.

Therefore, I’ll end with four more Langella moments.

First, Lear’s delayed reaction to Cordelia’s “nothing” in Act 1 — the rage takes a while to awaken, and then it doesn’t build rapidly. His first response is not anger, but puzzlement, or even amusement: surely, Cordelia must be joking? When it comes, the rage is mighty and ferocious, but it’s not a sudden storm.

Second, Lear’s meeting with Gloucester at Dover, one of the production’s most affective moments, in which Lear winds up cradling Gloucester in his arms. Langella here manages to strike a remarkable balance between sense and madness (“matter and inmpertinency mixed,” as Edgar puts it), seemingly talking to himself as much as to Gloucester half of the time, always on the brink of slipping off into a revery, and then waking to shocking clarity — and undermining the very notion that Lear is mad at all in the matter of fact tone of his “I know thee well enough: thy name is Gloucester.” Did he know all along?

Third, the reunion of father and banished daughter, in which Langella gives Lear’s drowsy confusion a pointedly laconic air: this is a Lear who wakes convinced that he is dead, puzzled by what is happening rather than angry at being tricked; dismissive of Cordelia’s kindness, but almost amused by the notion that she (and he) might be alive. And when he slowly comes around to this new reality, that realization comes with a certain matter-of-factness as well — the pin prick registers, and Lear is gently surprise that it does, but there is no rage, no energy left in him to respond loudly or forcefully to anything the play throws at him.

And lastly, that final scene again. Lear here is focussed single-mindedly on his daughter with an intensity and a kind of self-denial that I have no often seen in other versions. He may be dying, but all that matters is that Cordelia might yet be alive. Accordingly, “Pray you, undo / This button” has to refer to a button on his daughter’s dress: he is asking for help for her, not for himself, and when that help has no effect, he dies — because his daughter cannot be revived.

In placing such a strong emphasis on Lear’s dependency, almost from the start, the production risks losing part of the play’s political point — if Lear is in such decline already when the play begins, his decision to give up his kingdom, flawed though it may be in practice, appears too justified, not as the act of folly it is. Of course a king this frail ought to retire. The payoff is psychological, in that we get to witness a nuanced, compelling, and grippingly embodied portrayal of Lear’s collapse. And while that leaves a lot unsaid and much about Shakespeare’s text unproved, and while it leaves entirely open the question of what it might mean to stage this play now, and why one should, perhaps the reward of seeing a great performance makes up some of that lost ground.

Alright. This is long enough. I’ll write a separate post about Mark Rylance tomorrow.

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