There are any number of quotes from King Lear that one might employ to kick off a discussion of how fully Glenda Jackson embodies William Shakespeare's disintegrating ruler. "Every inch a King," might do, though it is spoken ironically in Act IV, when things have fallen well apart. Rather, what came to mind not long into a viewing of director Sam Gold's outstanding production of Lear now at New York's Cort Theatre, was the bit of dialogue above, from Terrence McNally's 1994 play Love! Valour! Compassion!. Machismo just begins to graze it. The tragedy of the mad king is a study of masculine power battling its own decline and Jackson, with self-ruinous male ego animating her wiry frame, feasts on the notoriously challenging role.
KING LEAR Broadway Reviews
This season's new Broadway production of William Shakespeare's King Lear, starring two-time Academy Award winner, two-time Emmy Award winner, and 2018 Tony Award winner Glenda Jackson and directed by Tony Award winner Sam Gold, just opened at the Cort Theatre. The production will play a strictly limited engagement through Sunday, July 7, 2019.
Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell will take on the traditionally male role of the Earl of Gloucester. Pedro Pascal will play Edmund, while Lear's scheming daughters Goneril and Regan will be played by Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O'Sullivan and Ruth Wilson will play Cordelia. John Douglas Thompson, will appear as the Earl of Kent, a role he played opposite Sam Waterston's Lear in a 2011 Public Theater production. The cast will also feature Sean Carvajal as Edgar, Dion Johnstone as the Duke of Albany, Matthew Maher as Oswald, Russell Harvard as the Duke of Cornwall, Michael Arden (Aide to Cornwall), Justin Cunningham (Ensemble/Duke of Burgundy), Dion Johnstone (Duke of Albany), Ian Lassiter (Ensemble/King of France), Che Ayende (Ensemble), Therese Barbato (Ensemble), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Ensemble), Daniel Marmion (Ensemble), and John McGinty (Ensemble).
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Wilson, her vocal delivery as elastic, youthful and whoop-whooping as Jackson's is throaty and grave, is handed one of Gold's strongest theatrical ideas late in the play, as the Fool prepares to take his leave, Cordelia soon to return (in all-black pseudo-Marxist revolutionary garb, no less). Scholars have long debated on whether the Fool is actually Cordelia in disguise, and judging from a simple, revealing coup de theatre, Gold suggests he has the answer. It isn't the first or last moment of truth in this extraordinary production.
She looks like no King Lear you've ever seen before - a small, thin woman in a black suit, her silver pageboy combed neatly to the side. Yet when the legendary British actress Glenda Jackson begins to speak - and then to fulminate and rage as only the narcissistic, aggrieved Lear can - she mows down men three times her size. The contrast is thrilling, and a key to the success of Sam Gold's smashing new production of the Shakespeare chestnut, now playing at the Cort Theatre on Broadway. This is a "King Lear" that wholly captures the complexities and contradictions of its title character, a still-roaring lion who refuses to accept that winter has dawned.
BWW Review: Glenda Jackson is Wickedly Fun in Sam Gold's Surprisingly Comic Take on Shakespeare's KING LEAR
As the political power struggle intensifies and the body count begins to rise, Gold guides his actors to a smooth transition into the tension and tragedy of its climax. Jackson's Lear is no less pitiable in the play's final moments than he might have been with a less presentational performance. But for audiences, the journey getting to those final moments is a just a little more kick-back enjoyable than usual.
Shakespeare nailed it: "Though she be little, she is fierce." Glenda Jackson may look frail, but the 82-year-old legend performs the noble task of rescuing director Sam Gold's rickety Broadway production of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. To be sure, the salvage job is all technique. But although Jackson fails to wring tears, let alone blood, from this production, the sheer intelligence of her performance makes it memorable.
Jackson's performance (androgynous, sharp and emphatic) is superb - at first. Beginning with the famous storm sequence, her transition into Lear's state of madness is underwhelming. She essentially remains the same as before, just a bit sillier and looser. Similarly, the production as a whole loses impact as it goes along, owing to its extended length and the fact that many of its original flourishes begin to lose their luster and feel strained and disjointed.
That previous King Lear was staged at London's Old Vic in 2016, under the direction of Deborah Warner, renowned for her innovative interpretations of classic works, including her collaborations with another great actress from across the pond, Ireland's Fiona Shaw. Having missed that acclaimed staging, I can only speculate that Jackson was as magnificent as she is in this current incarnation-and as generous, for Gold's Lear is as much a showcase for excellent ensemble acting as it is a star vehicle.
The joy of watching Glenda Jackson as Lear in Sam Gold's lean and clear production is that she doesn't approach every well-known speech or phrasing at a grandiloquent gallop. Jackson's most noticeable verbal extravagance is an almost comically elongated rolling of her r's, and so "crawl" becomes crrrrrrrrrawl." (She also played Lear in 2016 in the U.K., though in a different, critically hailed production; it too rang with the present-day echoes of Brexit.)
Much of Jackson's performance takes place on the elocutionary level. She doesn't so much speak her lines as seethe them. Vowels are stretched for whooshing emphasis; consonants are crashed upon with the force of a speeding car against a highway divider. The diction is so pyrotechnical that it may come as a surprise to learn that Jackson's Lear is more personalized this time around, more human. In London, she was a stylized archetype waging war against the gods. Here, she's a declining father whose dictatorial temperament is making for a rough ending. Unfortunately, the production and her performance often seem at loggerheads.
It's often said that there's no greater grief than a parent's loss of a child, so it follows that there's no more devastating moment in King Lear than when the monarch's pitiless odyssey through familial betrayal, rage and madness, triggered by his own blind vanity, leaves him cradling the dead body of the one daughter whose love for him was pure. That goes double when the title character's tragic arc is explored, in Sam Gold's aggressively modern, gender-blind production, by the magnificent Glenda Jackson. The searing pathos of Lear's abject diminishment seems all the more powerful given the steely authority that precedes it.
REVIEW: Glenda Jackson is extraordinary as Shakespeare’s mad monarch in uneven production of ‘King Lear’
Like a lot of intense, progressive, secular work in this time of revolutionary exploration on Broadway, Gold's "King Lear" just has a better understanding of what needs to go than what needs to take its place. It wrestles mightily with the play's inherent moralism, religiosity and conservatism, and its demands that we feel our obligations. It seems to say that the old white guys made their mess all on their own.
It should surprise no one that Ms. Jackson is delivering a powerful and deeply perceptive performance as the most royally demented of Shakespeare's monarchs. But much of what surrounds her in this glittery, haphazard production seems to be working overtime to divert attention from that performance. That includes a perfectly lovely string quartet - playing original music by Philip Glass, no less - that under other circumstances I would have enjoyed listening to. Here, though, this intermittent concert seems to be competing with, rather than underscoring, Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy. The same might be said of Miriam Buether's blindingly gold set (lighted to sear the eyes by Jane Cox), which blazes with nouveau riche vulgarity.
Gold's production is full of interesting directorial choices that do not quite cohere into a shared universe for King Lear's characters to inhabit. The subtle Ruth Wilson plays Cordelia with soulful, depressive interiority-in a wise stroke of casting, she doubles as the Fool-while the hyperintense Aisling O'Sullivan, as Regan, looks at every moment like lasers are about to shoot from her eyes. Jayne Houdyshell, John Douglas Thompson and Dion Johnstone offer conventional turns as the play's Lear loyalists; Sean Carvajal flails through the thankless role of Edgar. The Duke of Cornwall is played, in a kilt, by deaf actor Russell Harvard, with Michael Arden signing translation.
An ill wind is blowing through Broadway's Cort Theatre and it's not coming from King Lear's fabled storm on the heath. It's the misdirection in this latest production of the great Shakespearean tragedy. Fortunately, there's Glenda Jackson in the title role acting up a storm herself; Her mighty talents are just about enough to make up for the many missteps in Sam Gold's flawed staging.
The rest of Gold's production lacks that kind of laser focus. The time period is murky; let's just say it's after the invention of duct tape, which features prominently in one scene. But there are definite allusions to a certain possibly certifiable current president. Gilded walls...a decorative lion statue...it's very Trump Tower, no? And an often throwaway line by Gloucester (Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell), the play's other deluded dad-"'Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind"-is delivered with a surprising heavy-handedness. Then there's the onstage eveningwear-clad string quartet, which pops up at the most inopportune times, almost drowning out moments like the Lear-Goneril-Regan fight with Philip Glass music.
Thrilling, cluttered, inventive and exhausting, Sam Gold's King Lear, which stars an impish and imperious Glenda Jackson, throws a stack of director's theater clichés at its marble walls. Some of them stick. Running three and a half hours (padding out the folio with bits of the quarto, like the mock trial scene), the production brings avant-garde techniques to Broadway with variable success. Some of the performances are exhilarating - Jackson, of course, Ruth Wilson, Elizabeth Marvel, Matt Maher in his Broadway debut - some aren't and the storytelling dazzles, then rambles.
Would that Gold's production had showed a similar resolve. But he seems to be one of these young Turks who comes to a classic text with ideas - so, so many ideas. And the result is a cluttered mess of a revival that too often threatens to overpower the poetry of the Bard's text and the strengths of some of the production's performances, Jackson's in particular.
There is a tragedy happening at the Cort Theatre, but it's not the tragedy of a rash and overweening English king, his three daughters, and the gaping maw of violent nihilism opened up by his childish demand that they turn their love for him into a competition. It's not the tragedy of a great king gone mad but rather of a great play that's lost its wits and its way. After a royal amount of hype built on the promise of the towering Glenda Jackson's role-defining performance, the painful truth is that Sam Gold's King Lear is a hot, heavy mess. And more painful still, Jackson's Lear fails to transcend it.