One of the many problems with the role of King Lear, Shakespeare’s oldest and most irascible monarch, is that, by the time an actor is old enough to play it, he may be too old to pull it off.
Frank Langella, who will open as Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music today, in a production that earned enthusiastic reviews last fall at the Chichester Festival Theater in England, turned 76 on New Year’s Day. He is a particularly vigorous and busy septuagenarian, with half a dozen movies scheduled to come out in the next few months and a second volume of memoirs in the works. Even so, two years ago, when he began talking about Lear with Angus Jackson, the director of this production, Langella worried whether he could even learn the part. He also wondered whether he had enough stamina to get through it on days that called for him to do it twice.
“It’s an interesting problem becoming an older man,” Langella said over dinner in a Manhattan restaurant shortly before Christmas. “There’s diminution. But knowledge comes along with diminution. They run hand in hand. If you accept it, look at it, it can be ennobling and thrilling. I can make the best of what there is. I can use certain powers that may be failing, to my advantage, instead of just giving up and hitting the golf course.”
He added that he had been offered Lear before, starting when he was in his 60s, and reflexively turned it down, not out of concern that he might not be up to the part but because he didn’t think it was worth doing.
“I freely admit now that I hadn’t even read the play,” he said. “I just believed all the cliches that I’d heard: That Lear is offstage for an hour or an hour and a half, depending on the version; that’s he’s a whiner, a screamer; that he’s self-indulgent. ‘Oh, that old bugger,’ somebody said. ‘He’s such a bore.’ But then two years ago, I read it and saw something that only a 74-year-old man can see. I saw something I hadn’t realized and hope to achieve: It’s a play about finding his mind, not losing it.”
Langella paused, then lifted an imaginary crown from his head and placed it on the table.
“The play is universal in one thing,” he said. “What do we become when we take off our crowns? What happens when we decide: ‘I am no longer going to live for my fame, for my power, my money, my sex appeal, my control, my ownership, you name it? I’m going to take this off, and you’re going to love me anyway.’”
Both Langella and Jackson were reluctant to discuss the production in detail, hoping to surprise the New York audience, but their conversation suggested that theirs is a very physical version of the play, with Lear lashing out in sometimes-violent ways.
The other hallmark of their version is that Langella never does the part the same way twice, partly because he’s still in the process of discovering the character and partly because it’s almost a point of honor.
“The Brit approach is very different from mine,” he said. “There’s a tendency to value consistency over creativity. You get it, you nail it, you repeat it. I’d rather hang myself. To me, every night within a certain framework — the framework of integrity — you must forget what you did the night before and create it anew every single time you walk out on the stage.”
He added: “There are certain animals in the jungle that you watch, and I like to be one of those. There are other animals about whom you say: ‘Oh, was he in the play? I didn’t notice.’ I want to be one of the animals you watch. Once I walk out there, it only matters that I viscerally and emotionally move you. That’s my game. My job is to take you right to the edge of every emotion that is required by whatever the character has to do.”
The Fool in this production is Harry Melling, better known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies. Melling is 24, young as Fools go, and has never done Shakespeare before.
He said of Langella: “Frank is a fantastic force and leads by example. I literally have no idea what he’s going to do next. That changes you and makes you better because the play is always evolving. The Fool and Lear are sort of yin and yang, and if he does something one way, that allows me to do it another.”
For an actor of his stature, Langella has had an oddly up-and-down career with immense youthful success, most notably as Dracula on Broadway in the late ’70s, followed by a midlife stretch when he had trouble finding work.
Lately, he has made a name for himself in the movies by playing, as it happens, older men: the ex-president in “Frost/Nixon”; a frail and failing novelist in “Starting Out in the Evening”; an aging jewel thief in “Robot & Frank.”
“This is why ‘Lear’ is so powerfully resonant for me,” he said. “It raises the issue: How do I keep shedding the things which I think are my long suit? I’ve been through juvenile, young leading man, romantic leading man, character actor. I’ve been the father and now the grandfather. I’ve been through all those stages, and if I were trying to cling to any one of them, life would be miserable.”
“Not that I wouldn’t want them back.”
“As you get older, you learn what you can endure,” Langella went on. “And I know that I just can’t endure living in a trailer in Burbank anymore and saying things like ‘And what did forensics tell you?’”
But he added that one of the difficulties of growing old as an actor — or his kind of actor, anyway — is “the horrible and frightening revelation that in order to be good at what you do, you have to go deeper and deeper with each part and have to eviscerate yourself in a way that the man in the audience would never dream of doing.”
“It may be that I keep doing it because I’m afraid to die. It may be that simple fact. The idea of saying, ‘I did this, I won that, I didn’t win that, and now I’ll just stop’ — that isn’t me. I’m a worker. If I don’t pit myself against things that are larger than myself, I’m lost.”