REVIEW: Glenda Jackson is ravishing in an uneven “King Lear”

REVIEW: Glenda Jackson is ravishing in an uneven “King Lear”

John Douglas Thompson and Glenda Jackson in “King Lear”. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

John Douglas Thompson and Glenda Jackson in “King Lear”. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe


A raging storm figures in Act II of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, but make no mistake, the coiled tempest at the heart of the production now on Broadway is Glenda Jackson—the 82 year old, two-time Academy Award winning actor whose titanic presence belies her short stature and slight frame.

As the titular character of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Ms. Jackson’s gender-blind performance captivates with a force that few actors can match.  Like a gale, she howls and swooshes about the stage, croaking, lurching, and consuming all in her path.  And that’s an unqualified good, because the balance of the cast in this modern production by auteur Sam Gold rarely register, and land unevenly as an ensemble.

After taking a break from her acting career to combat Thatcherism as a Member of Parliament for 23 years, Ms. Jackson chose Lear—one of the greatest roles in the pantheon—for her triumphant return to the stage at The Old Vic in London in 2016, proving that a great actor can do anything, or as she might say: “evuh-ruh-thing”.

The only aspect of that presentation remaining on Broadway in 2019 is Ms. Jackson’s ravishing presence.  Otherwise, Mr. Gold constructs anew an evening as visually and aurally arresting as it is emotionally clinical.  From an admittedly non-academic perch, I submit that “King Lear” is, to put it bluntly, a fascinating albeit weird play—and much of its weirdness is on full display at the Cort Theatre.

In case you are unfamiliar, the aging King Lear of Britain (Ms. Jackson) divides his realm, granting shares to his insincerely flattering daughters, Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan), disinheriting his third, Cordelia (Ruth Wilson), for her refusal to pander, and banishing the noble Earl of Kent (John Douglas Thompson) upon his disapproval of the arrangement. 

A secondary plot of filial impiety and rivalry concerns the Earl of Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell) and his sons, the scheming bastard Edmund (Pedro Pascal) and the victimized Edgar (Sean Carvajal).

As the play proceeds, Lear famously wanders his once-kingdom, descending into madness alongside his fool (also Ruth Wilson), before nearly every character meets his or her tragic fate amid their own power-hungry machinations.  Body count: eight, plus an onstage eye gouging!


Glenda Jackson captivates as King Lear. Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe


Though derived from the mythical reign of King Leir [sic] in the 8th Century BC, and written during the Elizabethan era at the tail end of the Renaissance, Mr. Gold’s stylized production flashes a contemporary flair containing signatures of his style, including a carpeted stage floor, central playing space that serves as every locale, and a perimeter of bench seating for the actors. 

The stage is bounded by the aforementioned purple carpet, three gold leafed walls, and a mix of Louis XVI-style furniture (set by Miriam Beuther)—the actors dressed in a mélange of high society wardrobe, from well-tailored, modern-fitting tuxedos and suits to attractive gowns, tunics, and pants for the women (costumes by Ann Roth). 

As the Duke of Cornwall, deaf actor Russell Harvard is shadowed by his sign-language interpreting aide (Michael Arden).  Indeed, the diversity of the cast in race, age, size, and ability, and gender-blind casting of Ms. Jackson and Ms. Houdyshell as male characters, is both modern and refreshing—even if it does make for a cacophony of accents and flurry of activity.

While it is, of course, expected that the play will bear witness to Lear’s own increasing madness, the slick staging of this production allows audiences to witness the mania of the other characters surrounding him as well, as they jockey for power and meet their own tragic ends.  

This works in fits and starts, but the entire play is rendered emotionally inert—overly comical and dramatic at times, and rarely haunting or moving where it should be. 

An exception, of course, is Ms. Jackson’s arc, particularly upon being reunited with her unjustly spurned daughter in Act Five and while cradling the lifeless Cordelia before dying, herself, of a broken heart in the final moments.  Aiding these spurts of emotional resonance is a gorgeous original score by musical giant Philip Glass, which is easily better than half of the new musicals I’ve seen this season.

That score is vigorously played by a black tie virtuoso string quartet seated upstage right for the first half of the play, and mingling about the assembled detritus across the stage in the second half.

Mr. Gold chooses the perfect moments for underscoring, though occasionally there is a sound imbalance that makes it hard to hear the dialogue.  Nonetheless, the music infuses a much needed vitality and immediacy to a production that otherwise too often feels incohesive and unconvincing.  Go for Ms. Jackson, bewilder at the rest.

Bottom Line: Glenda Jackson is ravishing in an otherwise incohesive and uneven “King Lear” by auteur Sam Gold.  Ms. Jackson’s captivating storm of a performance, an original score by Philip Glass, and arresting visual and aural moments are highlights.  The balance of the cast is uneven, and the play itself rendered as emotionally clinical.

King Lear
Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: April 4, 2019
Final Performance: July 7, 2019
Discount Tickets

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