Harry Melling, Frank Langella, and Steven Pacey in the BAM production of “King Lear,” through February 9. | RICHARD TERMINE/ BAM
“King Lear” is a great but hard, hard play. And this import from the Chichester Festival Theatre in Britain at BAM, starring Frank Langella and directed by Angus Jackson, literally reaches for hardness –– with multiple characters, including Lear, grabbing either their own crotches or those of others. It’s not meant to be sexy, but a comment on the rise and fall of potency that dominate the play –– whether potency as a lover or ruler.
If you’ve not seen “Lear” on stage before, please understand that I am not damning with faint praise by saying that this is a creditable, serviceable rendition of the play by more than able Shakespeareans who deliver the poetry ably and lucidly — always more than half the battle in a good Shakespeare. Especially delicious are the villains here: Catherine McCormack as Goneril, Lauren O’Neil as Regan, and Max Bennett as the bastard Edmund.
When Edmund’s ill-fated father, Gloucester (Denis Conway), tells Kent (Steven Pacey) about how his out-of-wedlock son came to be, the fun of fucking comes through: “Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making.” This being a tragedy, the payback for such pleasure is brutal for all concerned.
An earthy take on Shakespeare’s tragedy by Langella & Co.
Langella is a fine actor and has perfected both the regal bearing and titanic anger essential to carry Lear through most of the play. His foolish revenge on his truly devoted daughter, sweet Cordelia (Isabella Laughland), put me in mind of the thuggish ravings of Chris Christie, another revenge-bent executive with more than one tragic flaw.
Less strong is Langella’s voice. While it is deep and resonant, his loud growling sometimes swallows the poetry to the detriment of the play. The rest of the company is very well-spoken.
While “Lear” is filled with many potentially heart-wrenching scenes, it is not until its quieter, final ones that I felt moved by this production as Lear drags dead Cordelia center stage, touching her tenderly and dying upon her.
Less can be more with “Lear.” My favorite was Derek Jacobi, who did it at BAM in May of 2011, enhanced by director Michael Grandage’s unique take on the storm scene, almost silencing the tempest so that Lear could whisper his speech that famously begins, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” Langella takes a more traditional approach, bellowing amidst an impressive piece of stagecraft — a downpour in the middle of the Harvey Theater stage.
Sebastian Armesto is a pathetic enough Edgar, descending into his half-naked Poor Tom state and resurrected as a steely swordsman against his traitorous half-brother Edmund in the end. Harry Melling is an unusually young and appropriately playful Fool. And Chu Omambala is a stately Albany, one of the few characters we are able to root for — the adult in a court full of self-destructive players.
KING LEAR | BAM’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. at Ashland Pl. | Through Feb. 9: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $25-125 at bam.org or 718-636-4100 | Running time: three hours; one intermission