Frank Langella is outstanding, but that's just the start of why this "King Lear" is among the finest. Credit: Johan Persson
Shakespeare is trepidatious programming. With BAM’s “King Lear,” publicists relied heavily on the star power of Frank Langella in the titular role — but that doesn’t necessarily tell potential ticket-buyers much about the show, how it will be staged and what it will feel like. So apart from their familiarity with the lead, or with the text, they’d have to take a bit of a gamble to shell out cash and commit themselves for three hours.
Thankfully, those who took the leap would be mightily rewarded: This “Lear” is the best rendition in recent memory, despite the fact that it’s so unadorned. Actors in fairly basic period garb stand on a static stage, carrying the entire weight of the audience on their articulation in between the more exciting sword fights and slayings.
The keys to this production’s success are its clarity and transitions. Director Angus Jackson crisply directs these scenes, conveying exactly what’s happening with subtle transparency even while the prose carries on at a quick clip (as opposed to what too often happens in the Bard’s works: players “acting down” to the house, practically miming to convey what they’re saying).
Langella is the centerpiece, and he is magnificent at strip-teasing the self-discovery process of a megalomaniacal king. But much like the pitch-perfect young Fool (Harry Melling), who disappears after intermission, you adore him but don’t really miss him when he’s not there — and that’s a compliment to the rest of the ensemble, who are just as charismatic and nuanced that you wish you could follow them offstage and see their goings-on away from the main plot. Can we spend a day with wicked sister Regan (Lauren O’Neil)? Even watching her dress down a dishwasher would make for thrilling theater work. (In contrast, Isabella Laughland’s flat-faced Cordelia could hang in front of us and draw yawns — but she is the exception in this cast, where Langella is the rule.)
And just as the foibles of one scene conclude, the stage bleeds into the next scene, introducing new drama. Because the stage is stagnant, because there aren’t too many bells and whistles slowing things down, the show proceeds more smoothly than most movies aided by all the postproduction Hollywood can buy.
One notable exception is the transition to the iconic heath scene, wherein Lear succumbs to madness. For this, the entire show pauses while stagehands lift boards from the floor and reveal a pit into which rain will pound down. To help keep things moving during this pivotal break, music suddenly floods from the speakers. Because this kind of sound cue is absent anywhere else in the play, it hounds the senses in an abrasive way.
Is the dramatic weight of the downpour worth the distraction? The scene is surely one of the play’s most memorable, but the three minutes it takes to get there belong to another “King Lear” altogether — one in need of cumbersome antics to cover for deficiencies that this production, blessedly, is otherwise without.