Three-time Tony Award-winner Frank Langella gives humanity, depth and power to his often-ferocious portrayal of Lear, in the Chichester Festival Theatre production which opened Thursday night at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.
Naturalistic direction by Angus Jackson allows the play's insights to resonate with clarity, as Lear "crawls toward death" while losing everything that has defined his sense of self for decades, including his hubris. Yet even when slipping into madness or playfully rolling his eyes, Langella remains a robust, regal presence. He gives searing poignancy to Lear's eventual humbling and subsequent deep, wailing sorrow over Cordelia's death.
Isabella Laughland is a sweet, childlike Cordelia, gravely emitting innocence. In sharp contrast, Catherine McCormack as Goneril and Lauren O'Neil as Regan are skillfully repugnant as her greedy, duplicitous sisters. The pair's blood lust increases along with their false, vicious smiles, as they disrespect and torment their elderly father after getting hold of his land and fortune.
That other misguided father, the Earl of Gloucester, is given a quietly stirring presence by Denis Conway. Max Bennett gleefully portrays the treacherous Edmund, Gloucester's black-hearted, illegitimate son. As good son Edgar, soon in exile and disguised as a mad fool named Poor Tom, Sebastian Armesto gamely babbles nonsense through most of the play, while nearly naked and covered in mud after a real onstage downpour.
Harry Melling (best known as bully Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films) is charmingly tender as a gentle clown of a Fool, and Steven Pacey stands out as the staunchly devoted Kent. Chu Omambala lends impressive gravitas to Albany, Goneril's decent husband and one of the last men standing when the bodies have piled up.
The sodden rainstorm fits perfectly with the stark, minimal scenery, which appears to be natural materials like wood, brick and stone. The large wooden map of Lear's kingdom, elegantly embedded in the floor by designer Robert Innes Hopkins, is tellingly flung aside when the once-proud ruler shambles brokenly into the raging storm.
Medieval details of the fine costumes and some vigorous sword-fighting firmly ground this excellent production in the violent era in which Shakespeare originally envisioned his doomed characters.