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King Lear

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Jayne Houdyshell and Glenda Jackson in King Lear

Jayne Houdyshell and Glenda Jackson in King Lear.  Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

One year after accepting the Best Actress Tony Award for Three Tall Women, 82-year-old Glenda Jackson has commanded the Cort Theatre stage in William Shakespeare's egocentric, maddening and very long, King Lear, roaring and growling for three and a half hours, six days a week. 

Her Tony Award, with her two Academy Awards and two Emmy Awards, already puts Jackson in the arena of winners for the "triple crown of acting."  The announcement that she would star in the Bard's greatest tragedy this year predicted a good chance for a second Tony.  Always a powerful work, Jackson as Lear lured in early audiences, many of whom were not Shakespeare fans despite the play's popularity on Broadway.  In recent years it has been performed way by Ian McKellen, Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer and John Lithgow.  Does another woman as Lear (Olympia Dukakis played the role in a benefit) promise new nuances?  Or is it a gimmick, or just business? Maybe some of each. 

She is not supported by the awkward over-direction by Sam Gold.  His unconventional staging was outstanding in the off-Broadway's Othello in 2016.  Here, however, he mixes-matches-unmatches Shakespeare's self-involved King who descends into madness with the chaos of today's political atmosphere.  The gilded palace setting by Miriam Buether is obviously a scornful glance at Trump.  Costumes by Ann Roth are also mix-and-match with elaborate gowns against contemporary dress. Jackson herself wears a man's suit, pajamas or is wrapped in tatters. 

Jackson exhibits Lear's vanity, first when Lear offers parts of her kingdom to daughter Goneril (played by excellent Elizabeth Marvel) and strident Regan (Aisling O'Sullivan),  both of whom shower their mother with adulation.  After basking in their praise, the King grows hostile when her youngest daughter, Cordelia (portrayed by Ruth Wilson, who also scores as the Fool) refuses to fawn over her mother.  Resentful that Cordelia does not bathe her mother with false praises, Lear offers her nothing, only later to appreciate that Cordelia was the one who most sincerely loved her.

Physically a small woman, Jackson allows her Lear to emerge through her depths with a looming  power. Even the slightest facial quirks speaks for her character.  Lear demands depth of interpretation as her mind deteriorates and her moods lift and fall. Jackson delivers, inhabiting the King's demand for universal adulation and her final realization that there is a greater power in the thunder and wind she must plow through on the beach.  She does not have far to go to descend to loneliness and madness.

The staging continues to distract with the questionable use of handguns.  Is there any dramaturgical need for a hearing impaired actor, Russell Harvard, to play the ambitious Cornwall, although Michael Arden speaks and signs effectively for him?  An onstage string quartet performs Philip Glass' original music, which would be pleasing on its own but is distracting against the drama going on.

Outstanding are John Douglas Thompson is Kent, Jayne Houdyshell as the Earl of Gloucester who has her eyes gouged out.  Edmund, is well played by Pedro Pascal and Ruth Wilson is busy as Cordelia but even more impressive mugging satirically as the Fool.

Before her 2018 return to Broadway, Glenda Jackson had won awards for film and stage work in the United States and Great Britain, including with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  From 1992 to 2015, she turned to politics as a member of the British Parliament. 

Her roles on and off stage were always demanding and she conquered the challenges.  In King Lear, while Jackson's performance is impressive, many in the audience who were less familiar with the play, were heard complaining about the extended length.  I have to agree with them.  Sam Gold's misdirection was overpacked and that stripped King Lear of much of its impact.

King Lear

Cort Theatre 
138 - West 48th Street. NYC
Previews: Feb. 28, 2019. Opening: April 4, 2019. Closing: June 9, 2019 (earlier than June 7 closing)
Running Time: Three hours, 30 min. One intermission.
Cast: Glenda Jackson, Ruth Wilson, Jayne Houdyshell, Elizabeth Marvel, Aisling O’Sullivan, Pedro Pascal, John Douglas Thompson, Michael Arden, Sean Carvajal, Justin Cunningham, Dion Johnstone, Ian Lassiter, Russell Harvard, Matthew Maher, Che Ayende, Therese Barbato, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Daniel Marmion and John McGinty
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Original music: Philip Glass
Directed: Sam Gold

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
April 2019

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