Two words make the only reason to see the current production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”—Glenda Jackson. It isn’t just that a woman is playing the role—that’s been done before. It is this particular woman, a renowned pro with a long list of film and stage credits, as well as a long-time past member of the British Parliament. Jackson, nearly 83, lives up to expectations, with a powerful, remarkable performance. I saw her at a matinee and to think that she would repeat that utterly demanding role a few hours later in the evening was astonishing.
As for the staging itself, under the direction of Sam Gold, one can forget about most of it. Some of the cast members are good, to be sure, but the production lacks distinction and can even be annoying at times. Does one really need killing with the use of a handgun?
No matter. Don’t go worrying about the production. This is Jackson’s show, and she certainly delivers. Although slight in build, she exudes enormous strength where needed. In the early stage of this modern dress offering—we see Lear in a suit—Jackson is impressively nasty as Lear refuses to give Cordelia (Ruth Wilson) part of the kingdom because she will not grovel with words of love as her two sisters, Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan), have done.
Jackson carefully builds the portrait of Lear collapsing into senility and madness, so that at the key moments the character progressively explodes with rage, sinks into a mental fog, and ultimately is to be pitied as he wanders about—the portrait of a ruler tragically gone to ruin. In this production, we see Cordelia descend hanging from the ceiling, with Lear tearfully mourning her death. The bit of stagecraft may be questionable, but the emotional effect is there.
Jackson’s diction in rendering the Bard’s penetrating lines is impeccable. Her acting experience coalesces here into a deep understanding of the role and the ability to communicate the essence of what has made playing Lear a mighty, demanding goal for performers through the years. (See Search for five other “King Lear” productions reviewed on this site.)
As for the staging itself, the cast members in modern dress perform within a broad, glittering gold-tinted box-like set designed by Miriam Buether, with various lighting changes designed by Jane Cox. The accents are a jarring mix, and director Gold, as with the handgun use, tries to make the past look modern. A string quartet, sometimes visible on stage, plays a score by Philip Glass, interesting in itself, but on occasion intrusive.
As for the quality of the performances besides that of Lear, always excellent Jayne Houdyshell is the major standout and deeply moving as the Earl of Gloucester, whose eyes are gouged out. Marvel is impressive as Goneril. Pedro Pascal is strong as Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Wilson does double duty, playing the Fool as well as Cordelia.
But there is no need to extensively analyze this production, which will most likely be forgotten except as the occasion of Glenda Jackson demonstrating her prowess with her memorable, award-caliber performance. At the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 18, 2019.