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Glenda Jackson in King Lear – review round-up

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In one of the biggest theatrical events of the year, Glenda Jackson has returned to the stage after a 25-year hiatus in politics to tackle one of world drama’s most daunting roles, on one of London’s biggest stages, at the ripe old age of 80. Talk about stamina.

Not content with winning two Oscars, getting elected as a Labour MP four times, and endearing herself to a whole new generation by savagely berating Iain Duncan-Smith in the House of Commons, Jackson has decided to have a crack at playing King Lear at the Old Vic. She’s joined in Deborah Warner’s star-studded, modern-dress production by Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks, Rhys Ifans and Harry Melling.

But can an actor born before World War II triumph over such an imposing role? What does Jackson’s experience of political life lend to her Lear? And, crucially, is anyone still awake at the end of Warner’s three and a half hour-long production?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

King Lear – Glenda-bending

Glenda Jackson in King Lear at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Glenda Jackson in King Lear at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton

First things first: Shakespearean traditionalists concerned that Warner might be doing an Emma Rice and interfering with the sacred text can breathe easy. Pronouns remain as writ; gender, as Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★) puts it, “doesn’t feel like a big deal here; this Lear is more elemental than that.”

Onto the big one – how does Jackson do? Well, according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) “she has pulled off one of those 11th-hour feats of human endeavour that will surely be talked about for years to come”. For Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), “she is tremendous in the role” and for Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★), “the cast is stellar and the brightest of all is Glenda Jackson”. Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★★) also thinks she is “breathtakingly good”.

Her appearance alone is striking. “She’s so pale,” writes Cavendish, “so spectre-thin – with an androgynous crop of lankish hair – that she might almost have been out on the blasted heath for months.” For Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★), “she makes for a shrivelled Lear, lined as a walnut, scuttling, hobbling, flicking her unisex fringe and waving two distractingly large, washerwomanish hands as though in semaphore.”

But Jackson is famed for her voice above all. And, by most accounts, it holds up well here. Lukowski thinks it “sounds like it could split mountains.” For Cavendish it “can blast out with a force to induce shockwaves”. And Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★) isn’t alone when he remarks on how Jackson “finds revealing readings of well-known lines and uses her voice with forensic precision.”

Appearance? Tick. Voice? Tick. Emotional range? Well, Billington writes that “Jackson, like all the best Lears, shifts in a moment between madness and sanity, anger and tenderness, vocal force and physical frailty.” Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★) also lauds the dynamics of her performance, arguing that Lear becomes, “in Jackson’s initially ferocious and ultimately desperately vulnerable presence, a tour de force.” Matt Wolf (New York Times) even goes as far to suggest that those familiar with Jackson’s pre-parliamentary days, “may be surprised by the depth of pathos communicated by a performer long known for her asperity.”

The critics have written veritable essays on the nuances of Jackson’s Lear. Praise is almost universal, but in amongst the applause lurk a few sceptical voices. Lucinda Everett (What’sOnStage, ★★★★) thinks that Jackson’s voice occasionally “lacks power and flexibility”. And Letts thinks that “her performance tastes oddly over-rehearsed, almost every sentence seemingly with its designated gesticulations and vocal inflections.”

King Lear – And the rest

King-Lear-Old-Vic-995Once the critics have finished extolling Jackson, there’s precious few column inches left for the rest of the cast. Ifans and Imrie have to put up with a sentence or two apiece.

Opinion is mixed about Jackson’s supporting cast. Ifans’ Fool, dressed in superman suit and clown mask, is lauded by Lukowski as “a bizarro force of nature who almost seems to be an extension of the old king’s id”, and by Wolf for being “genuinely funny and truly anarchic.” Billington likes Ifans less, complaining that he “over-colours every line” and reminiscing instead over Alec McCowan’s Fool in Peter Brook’s RSC production – in 1962.

Imrie’s Goneril and Horrocks’ Regan are similarly divisive. For Shenton, they are “appropriately icy, power-dressing studies in ambition,” but for Heather Neill (The Arts Desk), they stray “too close to being the wicked sisters, to the point of caricature.” Hitchings agrees with Neill, writing that Imrie and Horrocks are “a little too much like pantomime villains.”

Harry Melling – of Dudley Dursley fame, now one of the most interesting young stage actors – is roundly praised as Edgar, though. West End Wilma (West End Wilma, ★★★) is most acclamatory, writing that Melling’s energy carries the production and that if Jackson is a “legend reborn”, Melling is a legend “arising”.

King Lear – Lear of the year?

King-Lear-Old-Vic-165But, as Lukowski saliently observes, “King Lear is a big old play”. And a stonking Lear does not a stonking production make. Warner’s staging, on a minimalist set of geometric white scenes – described by Lukowski as “halfway between a TV studio and an art gallery”, leaves a lot to be desired. Actors and stagehands mill around on set beforehand as if preparing for a rehearsal, Simon Manyonda’s Edmund inexplicably moons the audience, and Gloucester’s ripped-out eye is hurled into the audience melodramatically. “Brechtian” seems to be the non-committal adjective of choice.

Some appreciate this daring. Everett admires the way “modernity and meta-theatricality shine from the stage throughout,” seeing in Warner’s production “a reference to our (and Lear’s) tendency to believe what we want to.”

Most, however, don’t. Shenton damns Warner’s direction as “self-consciously modish”, Cavendish longs for “the professional grandeur that marks out the current RSC production with Antony Sher”, – opening at the Barbican soon – and without a sense of setting, West End Wilma cannot overcome the “constant sense of disconnection” between characters. Hitchings sums up the prevailing critical sentiment on Warner’s production pithily: “at times, it feels too determined to be edgy.”

King Lear – Is it any good?

Nearly everyone is in agreement – Glenda Jackson has still got it. Her return to the stage is a triumphant one, and her powerful central performance is the undoubted highlight of Deborah Warner’s “Brechtian” production. Rhys Ifans and Harry Melling earn plaudits for their Fool and Edgar respectively, but this is – and was always going to be – Jackson’s show.

We’ll let Lukowski have the final, tantalising words. “It really does feel like a comeback: not a last lap of honour, but the return of a great actor with more to give.”

Read more reviews on The Stage

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