King Lear (review). Stage and screen star Frank Langella delivers powerhouse performance.

Frank Langella as King Lear. Photo by Johan Persson
Frank Langella as King Lear. Photo by Johan Persson

Sometimes Shakespeare needs a little help to make it more accessible to the public. Richard Tennant is pulling them at the RSC with Richard II and now a Titan of the American stage and screen is doing the same for another of the Bard’s royals.

Frank Langella has flown over to give his own masterclass in Shakespearian performances with an truly epic King Lear on Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva stage.

Harry Melling. Photo by Johan Persson

Harry Melling. Photo by Johan Persson

The versatile Langella delivers a powerful turn as an aging king usurped, humbled and eventually driven insane by his heinous and scheming older daughters.

Director Angus Jackson gets the best out of his leading man by making the production very much a starring vehicle. It’s almost impossible to register anyone else when Lear is holding court - from the moment the bowed elderly man stumbles onto the stage, through his incandescent rages to, finally, his abject humility. All eyes are on the king.

The actor uses every ounce of his commanding physical strength to produce an unforgettably stirring performance. The voice is booming and, when he grabs his daughters by the arms and roughly tosses them aside, you can almost see the bruises appearing on the actors’ fragile limbs.

There’s little subtlety here but, instead, we’re given an uncomprehending father who, literally, is at his wit’s end at trying to come to terms with the behaviour of his three daughters.

There’s an excellent ensemble cast which includes Catherine McCormack as the traitorous oldest daughter, Goneril; Harry Potter star Harry Melling superbly playing the all-knowing Fool and Max Bennett and Sebastian Armesto as warring brothers Edmund and Edgar.

For, in Lear, we have two stories about duplicitous siblings and betrayed fathers. Bubbling along in the background is the tale of The Earl of Gloucester’s two sons – the noble, if naïve, Edgar, and his plotting and ambitious bastard brother who is determined to find favour at court.

This second story produces one of the bloodiest moments in Shakespeare’s oft ketchup-fuelled tragedies and it’s not one I relish seeing again. There’s actually quite a lot of the red stuff in this production. It almost made me think I was back at The Globe.

Langella’s King Lear is a thrilling masterpiece which, after a scandalously short run, is packing up its bags and flying off to New York when it really should be heading to the West End.

It is a momentous finale to a stunning season of drama at one of the best regional theatres in the country.

King Lear runs until November 30. For tickets call the box office 01243 781312 or go online www.cft.org.uk

Follow me @LBOanne