In 2011, Derek Jacobi played Lear on the BAM Harvey stage, a singular squawking and singsong performance that you just knew, could just feel, would be the finest and most original to come to Brooklyn for a generation. Who knew that claim would be tested so soon—and on the very same stage? Boldly, BAM stages a major Lear on the same boards just 31 months later, a short time in theater years, but you can’t blame them for wanting to import this Chichester Festival Theatre production (through February 9): it stars the great Frank Langella as the rashly cruel monarch whose unkindness is karmically repaid—and then some! This king is a role every actor over a certain age wants to take on, so you can understand Langella wanting to cash in a bit of his stature for a shot at it.
He proves an anchor in a sturdy if not lifechanging Lear, balancing the rage and vulnerability, the odiousness and pitiability, of a once-powerful man unable to cope with, and driven mad by, his sudden loss of authority—hunched over, hobbling from end to end of the stage, he is particularly sensitive when attending to Cordelia’s corpse; I doubt all those sniffles you hear are from a common cold epidemic. But too often, particularly before he goes mad, I felt much of the part’s poetry was lost in Langella’s grumbly voice.
But the show’s most serious faults lie in Angus Jackson’s production. When our critic Mark Martin reviewed the Jacobi Lear, he praised it for the way it played against cliche:
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear is the most vulnerable to spectacle and misplaced passion—to the actorly desire to “out-herod Herod,” as Hamlet put it. With its eye-gouging and madness, Lear readily degenerates into a cringe-inducing shout fest… the real test [is] the storm scene, where countless productions have drowned in mock rain and flying spittle. In contrast, Jacobi whispers his exhortation to the elements. No special effects, no hemorrhaging histrionics. Just a thrilling voice intoning language of desperate beauty in the darkness.
Suffice to say that Langella howls in his gravelly growl, a rain machine pouring buckets onto the BAM Harvey stage. (Lear is a ridiculous play, though, so you could argue it deserves to be treated ridiculous!)
But, hey, if you missed the Jacobi Lear, well, what are you going to do, right? The theater is frustratingly ephemeral in a way books and movies aren’t. This is still a competent Lear, typical and solid, satisfying for anyone jonesing to see the tragedy or to see Langella live and onstage. But if it offers any real revelations, they lie in its margins: Max Bennett is an outstanding Edmund, whose energy and wit in duplicity make his every scene compelling, particularly the soliloquies; and Sebastian Armendo as Edgar makes the most of his Poor Tom scenes. Perhaps in another few months, you’ll see one of them playing King Lear at BAM? If you can’t wait that long, in March Arin Arbus, one of the city’s finest Shakespeare adapters, directs a version with Michael Pennington for Theatre for a New Audience—around the corner from the Harvey.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart
Full disclosure: The L Magazine‘s parent company publishes the programs for BAM.