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Glenda Jackson in King Lear review at the Old Vic – ‘a tour de force’

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

The Royal Shakespeare Company is about to bring its (mostly) traditional period-garb King Lear to the Barbican, starring 67-year-old classicist Antony Sher, but first the Old Vic offers something far more risky – and far more exciting.

That’s not because Lear is being played by a woman – Harriet Walter is currently playing three Shakespearean male roles (Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero) in rep for the Donmar – but because he’s played by this particular woman, namely Glenda Jackson, now 80.

Jackson had a long and distinguished acting career that saw her win two Oscars. When she played Ophelia for the RSC, critic Penelope Gilliatt said: “She was the only Ophelia I had ever seen who was capable of playing Hamlet”. Jackson, alas, never did play Hamlet. Instead, she dramatically changed course in 1992, getting elected as a Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate, and spending the next 23 years as a dedicated constituency politician.

Now, a quarter of a century since her last major London stage role in Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution at the Almeida (she signed off a year later in a Glasgow production of Mourning Becomes Electra), she’s boldly and fearlessly returning to the stage to tackle this Everest of roles. 

As Matthew Warchus, artistic director of the Old Vic, recently told the New York Times: “If she was going to come back, she wasn’t going to tiptoe back into the business.”

But, thrillingly, there’s no need to tiptoe around her achievement. Lear is a remarkable act of stamina, memory and emotional reserves for any actor. It becomes, in Jackson’s initially ferocious and ultimately desperately vulnerable presence, a tour de force. As she stumbles around the heath, her bare, bony legs exposed, you know everything of Lear’s age and rage and what these events have cost him.

Jackson’s casting also turns out to be the least gimmicky feature of Deborah Warner’s slightly self-consciously modish production, staged and co-designed by her with lighting designer Jean Kalman in the current modern European art-house mode. The first sight is of a line of blue plastic chairs, arranged against a series of geometric white screens, and Edmund’s first entrance sees him having to do a long physical work-out, skipping vigorously and doing other exercises, while also speaking. He even moons the audience.

I have to admit my heart sank a little, but fortunately the concept is carried by the compelling performances of a cast of fine actors. Karl Johnson is a grizzled Gloucester (when his eyes are ripped out one is thrown into the audience, and on press night landed in someone’s ice cream). Rhys Ifans, in a Superman shirt and cape, is a dominating Fool, and Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks are appropriately icy, power-dressing studies in ambition as Goneril and Regan. The two most tender performances of the night though, come from Harry Melling’s Edgar, heartbreaking as Poor Tom, and Morfydd Clark, who has a forgiving vulnerability as Cordelia.

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Sometimes idiosyncratically modern version of King Lear powered by fine performances