I fully expected to love Frank Langella’s King Lear. After all, aging movie stars may be even better candidates for the role than those versed in Shakespeare. Saturated for decades in shallow adulation, applauded for their every move, they have far more to fear in losing what Mr. Langella calls our “metaphorical crown[s],” the “props we all use to justify our existence.” Moreover, with his powerful gravitas, his Nixon jowls, and his cue ball head sparsely decorated with sprouting white hairs, Mr. Langella certainly looks the part. But there is something essential that he has missed about his king. “If you’ve lived your life as he has,” he says of Lear, “from the moment of birth, having the crown put on your little head and every wish and every command of yours indulged in—you cannot understand real love.” It is possible that he misspoke with “real love,” but the Lear Shakespeare wrote overflows with it. He is crippled by love, and unlike Othello, he loves not wisely but too well. The fact that his love is narcissistic does nothing to invalidate it, and it is precisely this excess of feeling that makes Edmund (Max Bennett), the man with no feeling, so effective a foil. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Mr. Langella asks after shuffling onstage, and the question is posed routinely, as if he were a CEO opening a meeting with his board. Surely, Lear thinks he knows how his daughters will answer, but that does not mean he would be bored in listening to them. This opening proves indicative of Mr. Langella’s entire performance, which is inexplicably mute and unaffecting, eliciting little response no matter how loud he roars or how heavily he sobs.
Unfortunately, he receives little help from his co-stars. Mr. Bennett is the type of actor whose crisp, breezy diction masks a rather rudimentary sense of the text. As written, Edmund’s motivations are far more elusive than simple anger, bitterness, or jealousy, but Mr. Bennett plays him more like Iago or Shakespeare’s other famous (and emotive) bastards, Don John and Aaron the Moor; this injection of affect when there is none makes Edmund’s ultimate transformation—when, while panting for life, he means to do some good—both unremarkable and unbelievable. The interpretation is too clean. Meanwhile, Sebastian Armesto does little to illuminate his character’s parallel relationship to Cordelia (Isabella Laughland) in a performance that is inconspicuous even with 392 lines, and Harry Melling teases out little of what makes the Fool such a meaty part.
Granted, director Angus Jackson provides us with some striking imagery: of a bloodied and raving Tom o’Bedlam; of Glouchester’s (Denis Conway) eyes removed, thrown, and shattered like jelly; and, while it is a bit obvious to have the Fool sing “the rain it raineth every day” while soaked, of Lear raging against the storm and nature. Still, these small moments of relief do not overcome a King Lear that fails to leave its audience weak-kneed and speechless. An unemotional Lear is a very long Lear indeed.