Even for those of us who class ourselves as avid Shakespeareans King Lear has never been a play that stood out largely. However, when it was announced that this was to be taken upon by Chichester Festival Theatre with a cast including the great Frank Langella as King Lear who had recently reinvented himself as a character actor through Frost/Nixon as well as two faces perhaps more familiar to those of ‘our generation’ Harry Melling and Isabella Laughland, both known for roles in Harry Potter, I simply had to witness the result for myself.
For those of you less familiar with the great bard’s piece let me fill you in. King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies revolving around the title character falling into madness after distributing his estate between two of his three daughters based on flattery. Gonreil (Catherin McCormack) and Regan (Lauren O’Neil) both pander to this flattery to obtain land and when the elderly king offers the largest bit of land to his most beloved youngest daughter if she expresses her love she cannot. Cordelia (Isabella Laughland) cannot find anything to compare her love to and so speaks bluntly infuriating the king and causing him to disinherit her casting her away into the love of the French King (Rob Heaps) who views her goodness as higher a fortune than any dowry.
The two remaining princesses soon drive their father into madness and cause a rift within the country for those who support the king and those who are loyal to the sisters. Throughout this there is subplot revolving around the honourable Duke of Gloucester (Denis Conway) and a treachery of his illegitimate son Edmund (Max Bennett) unbeknownst to the Duke who causes doubt upon his innocent legitimate brother Edgar (Sebastian Armesto) in a bid to gain land. Cordelia invades with her French forces but loses to her sisters’ army who is now led by Edmund. Gonreil poisons Regan after finding out they both are in love with Edmund and then after admitting her sin promptly commits suicide. Edmund and Edgar battle and Edmund is slain when his dishonourable nature is revealed, though not before attempting to redeem himself and admitting his ordering the death of Cordelia and King Lear. We then witness King Lear drag the dead body of Cordelia on stage and die of shock through the stress of events.
All the actors involved proved to be at the height of their talent. A large portion of the audience, not just myself, felt that arguably it was Max Bennett as the manipulative Edmund who stole the show. Able to carry off Shakespeare’s craftier language of deception clearly all the while delivering a captivating performance which astounded both those around me and myself.
No doubt due to the convenient set up of Chichester Minerva theatre where the play is being performed the audience is unable to lose focus on the actors due to the close proximity and attention to staging. Constantly aware of the circular set up of the seating every part of the theatre is attended to with great performance. Even when Catherine McCormack went to make a hasty get away during and tragically tripped the actors picked the situation up with improvisation flawlessly. It is easy to see that this cast is experienced.
Though all the actors perform phenomenally with the sisters often taking focus in their roles, it is impossible to discuss this production without gauging the main attraction. Frank Langella proved once again that he has reinvented himself as a true character actor and proved utterly captivating as the mad King, and showed not an ounce of discomfort, even with a bird’s nest on his head and attempting to strip onstage. He is perhaps perfectly supported by the shocking performance of Harry Melling as the fool and the chameleon that is Sebastian Armesto as both Edgar and the ‘crazed man’ who Lear believes is a philosopher. Both are incredibly witty and play with Shakespeare’s text well providing comedy relief against the tragedy of a doddery old man betrayed by his family.
Ultimately throughout this it was impossible for anyone not to well up when Langella as Lear drags Laughland’s ‘dead’ body into centre stage, cries and dies. A true rollercoaster of emotion this play was not only complete value for money but an honest experience of the senses and emotions. I thought at the beginning it would be impossible for them to make me fall in love with the bard’s King Lear, but indeed they achieved it. It seems the rest of the audience were in the same boat as the actors were met with a loud, raucous applause from everyone begging them to come back not once, but twice for another bow. I take my hat off to the director, Angus Jackson. I am now completely in love with the tale of King Lear, and possible Max Bennet and Sebastian Armesto too.