Four Lears in Six Months

by Carol Rocamora

in American Theatre magazine

Post image for Four Lears in Six Months

(Frank Langella as Lear in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s production in January)

“These late eclipses of the sun and moon portend us no good.”

So predicts Gloucester in King Lear, a play that has eclipsed in our skies four times so far in this calendar year – beating theatrical records, not to mention astronomical ones. And though those eclipses may have brought no good to Shakespeare’s characters, in contrast, they’ve given audiences a rare and wonderful opportunity to dig deeply into this fathomless tragedy.  

First to appear on the New York horizon in January was Frank Langella’s towering Lear, in Chichester Festival Theatre’s production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (directed by Angus Jackson). Michael Pennington’s touching Lear bowed only a few weeks later in March, right down the street at the Theatre for a New Audience’s beautiful new space (directed by Arin Arbus). In May came the Royal National Theatre’s production of Simon Russell Beale’s manic Lear (directed by Sam Mendes), broadcast in HD in area theatres. And this summer we have John Lithgow’s raging Lear at the Delacorte (New York Shakespeare Festival, directed by Dan Sullivan). 

This spectacular succession of Lears offer a wide variety of interpretations of the role. But the thrill of it is that – rather than invite comparison – they offer instead a composite portrait of Shakespeare’s most tragic figure. Each actor contributes his own singular insight into the cumulative devastation that a man faces in his waning years – including loss of power, position, and social status; physical, mental and financial decline; plus a world of family heartbreak.

“I am old and foolish,” Lear confesses. But ever since Paul Scofield’s Lear (played at age 41 in 1962) was named the greatest performance of the 20th century by his admiring peers, the contemporary theatre has abandoned the notion that age is the defining factor in playing the role. Simon Russell Beale is a mere 53 and John Lithgow is a young 68; while Pennington (71) and Langhella (76) show no sign of aging. Indeed, all four appear “at the top of their game,” and all have said they’re more than ready for the challenge. “It’s a very physical part, requiring an inhuman amount of stamina night after night,” says Michael Pennington. “I get tired washing the dishes or going to the local store, but I never get tired playing Lear”.

You know the story. At the play’s onset, Lear, at the height of his powers and the threshold of his declining years, gets the idea to divest his real estate assets amongst his family members while he’s still alive. It’s a fatal choice, he’s soon to discover. He summons his three daughters, their husbands, suitors, and advisors, to announce his intention to divide his kingdom, but first he puts his daughters to a test. “Which of you loves me most?” he asks each of them. Daughters Goneril and Regan pass with flying colors, lavishing declarations of unqualified love and devotion. Cordelia, the youngest (and Lear’s favorite) declares that she loves her father “according to my bond, no more no less”. Enraged by what he perceives to be her ingratitude, Lear disinherits Cordelia, banishes her, and divides his estate equally between his two seemingly servile daughters – all in full view of his horrified court. 

From that point on, it’s all downhill for Lear, and his precipitous plunge from all-powerful to powerless is dizzying in its velocity. He expects to be welcomed with open arms into the homes of his grateful daughters and sons-in-law who now own his real estate. Instead, they reject him, strip him of his retinue, humiliate him, and throw him out, homeless, into the cold. Destitute, Lear wanders out onto the heath in a raging storm, where he rails against the injustices of old age, with only his Fool and the wild winds to hear him. 

It’s no surprise that the formidable Frank Langella takes center stage at the top of his Lear and never abandons it. Langella is a force of nature, raging against the worst “hurricanoe” of all – old age – and he intends to win. Yes, Langella acts up a storm – but we’d expect nothing less from this charismatic actor. Pulling out all the stops, he offers a majestic Lear who towers over his cast with unquestionable authority. His range is impressive. His Lear in the opening scene is both preening and playful, as he manipulates his daughters and their retinue like pawns in a power game. Later, on his way down, careening from Goneril’s house to Regan’s, scorned and rejected by both, he becomes a raging old lion, surrounded by other fierce flesh-eaters – his own daughters. Ultimately, Langella’s Lear is at his most moving in the mad scene at the Dover cliffs, where he meets his friend Gloucester, who has been brutally blinded by Cornwall, Regan’s cruel husband. Langella plays his madness with a quiet, gentle, almost humorous touch, and the effect is arresting.

Director Angus Jackson has staged his Lear simply on a sparse set of rough grey wood, allowing Langella to claim the stage and display his colorful actor’s plumage.

As written, Lear is a role that gives an actor license to chew up the scenery – to rant (“blow, winds”), tear off his clothing (“a bare, forked animal”), rave (“howl, howl, howl”), and die of a broken heart (“pray you undo this button”). All the more reason, then, to admire Michael Pennington’s restraint in the role. His choices are quiet but resonant, intense, and deeply felt. Pennington’s elegant, frail Lear is a study in fallibility, vulnerability, and the dignity of a man in defeat. Unlike many of his colleagues, who choose to rage through the first half of the play against their daughters, Pennington’s Lear suffers the agonies of regret the minute he loses his temper in the first scene and disinherits Cordelia. By the time the bereft and beleaguered Lear gets to the famous storm scene, stripped of everything, his speech (“blow, winds”) is neither shouted nor ranted. Instead, Pennington dredges it up from the very depths of his anguished soul, until there’s nothing left.

Performed on a bare stage in TFANA’s sleek black box, director Arin Arbus has delivered a stately, toned-down production that allows the beauty of Pennington’s honest performance to shine. Rather than dominate his supporting cast (Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester and the Fool), Pennington’s Lear seeks solace in their empathy and humanity.

Michael Pennington's Lear(Michael Pennington as Lear at the Theatre for a New Audience in March)

I always thought that King Lear was a tragedy of old age and a rage against loss of status, of wealth, and one’s physical and mental faculties, but Pennington’s clarity and simplicity shows us that Lear is just as much the tragedy of a fractured family and the loss of a child. It’s also about seeking forgiveness, while knowing that it’s too late.“Thou’ll come no more,” he says, cradling the dead Cordelia in his arms. “Never, never, never, never, never”. Pennington articulates that repetition – one of the toughest lines in Shakespeare – with such unadorned finality and humility that, upon hearing it, the heart of any parent in the audience would break. 

If the essence of Langella’s Lear is prideful and the essence of Pennington’s Lear is humble, then the essence of Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is power-mad. Sam Mendes stages his Lear on an epic scale, in the heart of a modern day military dictatorship. Beale’s Lear compensates for his short stature (roughly 5’5”) with a super-sized performance. Combine the intensities of Stalin, Pinochet, and Saddam Hussein with the ego of Napoleon – and you have the cumulative fury of Beale’s tyrant. Set on the sweeping Olivier Stage of the National Theatre, the play’s opening divide-the-estate scene has a scale that evokes the public show trials of the Soviet era, with dozens of extras (all in military uniform) lining the ¾ round proscenium. Beale’s Lear struts around the huge stage, his shaved bullet-shaped head gleaming like an impenetrable dome, his rotund body encased in a military uniform, tyrannizing everyone and everything around him. He will simply not allow his daughters, the storm, the fates, or anything else to vanquish over him. 

SImon Russell Beale's Lear(Simon Russell Beale’s Lear at the Royal National Theatre in May)

Mendes uses the enormous Olivier stage with the flamboyant sweep of a film director (Skyfall is his most recent credit). In one extravagant moment, Lear arrives at Goneril ‘s castle with his retinue of fifty thugs (judging from the onstage throng, you’d swear there were more). They carry the life-size carcass of a stag, and throw it on Goneril’s banquet table. No wonder she throws her father out, along with his menacing men. In another epic-scale moment, this time during the storm, a huge, towering structure spins into center stage, which Lear climbs to deliver the famous “blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” rant. It’s the larger-than-life-sized image of a defiant King on the precipice of a free-fall into defeat. 

If Langella shows us the gentle side of Lear’s madness, Beale shows us the rabid side. In a shocking, Shakespeare-defying moment, Mendes has Beale’s Lear murder his Fool onstage, in a fit of mad delirium. In another scene, we see him shuffling around the stage in sagging underwear, dazed by his spent rage. Rarely have I seen a Lear more driven over the top than Beale’s. 

Finally, we have John Lithgow’s commanding Lear at the Delacorte. One of America’s most appealing actors, Lithgow brings a vigor and authority to the role – one that ignites into a titanic, red-hot rage at the indignities he suffers.At one moment, he bursts into real tears of anger at the dismissal of his fifty knights (“O reason not the need”) by his destructive daughters. At another, he tears into Goneril (a formidable Annette Bening) with a viciousness that she readily returns. In those shared moments of ferocity, you suddenly see how “like father, like daughter” they truly are.

John Lithgow's Lear(John Lithgow’s Lear at the Delacorte Theatre this summer)

“I feel now as if I’m old enough to play the part but also young enough to play the Park,” Lithgow says, referring to the challenge of performing such an intense dramatic role in the open-air Delacorte. His white beard may indicate his old age, but this actor stalks the stage like a lion who is still king of the jungle, resisting the descent into old age and madness with all the strength he can muster.

Daniel Sullivan, a virtuosic director of Shakespeare and a veteran of the Park, draws on the Delacorte’s strengths – including an open stage and the surrounding natural elements. The primitive set designed by John Lee Beatty, featuring a sparse, wooden platform set on a bed of mulch, is flanked by huge metal sheets that musicians strike like gongs, to indicate scene changes. Behind the set stands a massive textured backdrop, which comes alive during the performance with brilliant projections by Beatty and lighting designer Jeff Croiter. The backdrop morphs from a forest into a stormy heath, then a stream, then the Dover cliffs, and so on.Then there are the real skies over Central Park, capable of upstaging Shakespeare’s storm scene with a spectacular one of their own. A torrent of rain poured down on one of the last nights of the run this month. In a moment true to Shakespeare, Lithgow’s Lear and his cast braved the downpour, while the “all-shaking thunder [did] strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world”.

I’ve been fortunate to have seen many memorable and moving Lears over the past decades – including Ian Holm, Tom Wilkinson, Oliver Ford Davies, F. Murray Abraham, Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline, Christopher Plummer, and Sam Waterston – but this succession of royal Lears, storming across our heath in the past six months, have left a powerful cumulative effect, as well as a series of indelible images. We won’t forget the rain-drenched Langella railing against the storm. Nor will we forget Pennington cradling the dead Cordelia in his arms, nor the defiant Beale carousing with his fifty hoods, nor the raging Lithgow and his daughter Goneril clawing each other like tigers.  

Above all, in a play where the words “nothing” and “never” are poetic leitmotifs, we won’t forget the finality of Shakespeare’s admonishment, as articulated by the Fool and exemplified by these four great performances: “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise”.

Carol Rocamora teaches theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her translations of Chekhov’s complete dramatic works have been published by Smith & Kraus.