Poly over at The Other Bridge Project asks the question “can you have too many King Lears” and though she’s adamant that you can’t, I have to say my heart sinks a little every time a new production is announced, whether here in Chichester with Frank Langella or Simon Russell Beale’s forthcoming turn for the National Theatre early next year. But the enduring reputation of Shakespeare’s late classic attracts the kind of casts that are irresistible to a theatrical junkie like me and so I find myself a glutton for punishment going back again time after time.
And though I’d love to say that Angus Jackson’s production, running just a short while in the Minerva before transferring to New York, was worth the effort, it didn’t really do it for me. It is a hugely Lear-centric version of the play, placing Langella’s titanic monarch even more at the heart of the play than usual, and recalibrating the journey he takes as madness seizes him after a bit of a rum do with his three daughters. It’s a striking move, and one which showcases Langella well, but it does come at the expense of the richness of the ensemble.
Catherine McCormack and Lauren O’Neil as Goneril and Regan ooze seven shades of icy evil but the already under-featured characters (Shakespeare missed a trick by not making all about them…) deserve better. Isabella Laughland doesn’t quite achieve the admittedly difficult task of making Cordelia work and whilst Max Bennett makes the devilish Edmund an excellent charismatic presence, Sebastian Armesto’s Edgar doesn’t capture the same level of interest. I did really like Harry Melling’s nimble-witted and sweet-voiced Fool though.
But the shift in balance in making Lear’s collapse come quickly and thus his redemption into clarity of mind arrive much earlier than the end mutes the tragedy somewhat. The text later on has much stripped out of it to facilitate Lear’s new-found rationality and so loses some of its tragic humanity, the quavering reminders that he’s still an ageing monarch even when compos mentis, and so the production never had the emotional kick that I wanted, the finale feeling different and not necessarily better. Roll on Russell Beale.