In 2016, Glenda Jackson made a triumphant return to the stage in King Lear at London’s Old Vic. Now, she plays the role once again, giving a mighty performance as the monarch in decline.
Despite being set in Shakespeare’s England, Gold’s production subtly invokes Trump’s America (and, perhaps too, a Brexit-addled UK) – a country sliding into self-interested chaos. Though Lear initiates it, soon the whole kingdom has degraded with him, with characters losing their minds to ambition, sexual desire, or succumbing to the leadership vacuum.
The political corrosion is expressed with sparkling finesse in Miriam Buether’s scenic design, with metallic ore walls and a percussive metal curtain. In tandem with Jane Cox’s exquisite lighting, the walls glow gold in better times, then become greenish and tarnished as the nation self-destructs. Bit by bit, the set is obliterated.
Jackson’s performance is one of subdued fury; she uses every muscle in her body — gaping mouth, clenched fist, gritted teeth. With the bounce of a heel or the wiggle of a hip, she creates a quietly terrifying and, even sometimes, spunky Lear.
Her streamlined approach makes you wonder whether, perhaps, all the men who have played it before have been too hysterical. Their histrionics and chest-beating suddenly seem excessive and unnecessary. Her Lear rages, but she can also use a hug or a poisonous smile to devastating effect.
Not all the performances are as crystalline as Jackson’s, but Sam Gold’s emotionally cool production is still scintillating.
Alongside her, Ruth Wilson doubles as a whip-smart, self-possessed Cordelia and a less effective Fool, clowning awkwardly. Elizabeth Marvel’s insatiable Goneril is more thrilling, a pony-tailed Real Housewife of Olde England; Matthew Maher makes a delightful, foppish Oswald; and Pedro Pascal brings casual slyness the supreme seducer Edmund. Others wear their roles less easily, with Jayne Houdyshell’s Gloucester, Aisling O’Sullivan’s Regan, and Sean Carvajal’s Edgar out of sync with the rest.
With contemporary dress and an inclusive approach to casting, the production is invigorating. With actresses playing Lear, Gloucester, and the Fool, Gold allows women to take up more space than in a typical Lear and the traditional gender lines of the play are muted. He also employs d/Deaf actors in the leads and ensemble, casually integrating American Sign Language into the production. Russell Harvard largely signs his role as Cornwall with Michael Arden, as an aide to the Duke, translating. Others respond in ASL.
A string quartet plays Philip Glass’ music onstage. While this might invoke the band playing on as the Titanic sinks, musically it is almost too beautiful – a mismatch for this corrupt world.