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BWW Review: KING LEAR, Old Vic, 7 November 2016

Gender-blind casting has arrived and we'd better get used to it. Correction: it seems we are getting used to it, viz the revival of the Donmar's all-female Shakespeare trilogy. So the headline story of this Old Vic production is not that a woman is taking on the Everest north-face of a role formerly reserved for mature alpha males of the acting profession. The headline story of Glenda Jackson's Lear is that this Lear is magnificent, and its magnificence emanates directly from the text.

Anyone familiar with Jackson's Elizabeth R in the 1971 BBC TV series will know the actor's diction to be exceptional. We can't ever be sure how a monarch would have spoken in the 16th century, but her smooth, laser-etched precision persuades us that it might be like this. "We shall express our darker purpose," says her Lear in the opening scene, giving the word "our" two equally weighted syllables. That may seem a trifling point, but attention to scansion and clarity defines Deborah Warner's production - voice-coached by Patsy Rodenburg. In a dense and difficult text not a word is lost to the audience, which may in itself be a first.

In this modern-dress production (design by Warner with Jean Kalman), the verbal clean-up extends to the visuals. No pomp or ceremony attends Lear's arrival in Act I. His court is a triptych of large white screens, one of which, in a Brechtian touch, logs the Act and Scene numbers throughout the play. Courtiers and royals sit on blue plastic chairs. And when Lear makes his entrance, leaning on Kent's arm, in a red shirt and black slacks, he wears no crown. The actor's hair is not so much a crop as a chop, an androgynous touch that makes her ears appear large and her head shrunken, like a very elderly man's. This Lear's authority is a given, but it's perilously frail from the start.

Which makes it all the more shocking when Jackson lashes out at the favourite daughter who refuses to play the flattery game. At first the king's reaction is jovial, incredulous, the baritone rich with irony. Then a red mist descends, and, knocking Morfydd Clark's Cordelia violently to the floor, Jackson bellows like a foghorn: "I loved her most!" - a cry that combines rage with pathetic bewilderment. Even before Lear has crumbled, we pity his failing grasp on the world.

Warner's direction draws its modern parallels with a featherlight touch. Goneril and Regan's first private conversation together after the division of the kingdom has all the marks of the awkwardly covert negotiations between family members who already know they are going to put the aged parent in a care home.

Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks are nicely contrasted as the sisters. Pumped with HRT, both are more than willing to suffer to keep sexy - Horrocks in tourniquet-tight skinny jeans and teetering on vicious heels. It makes their squabble to the death over Edmund's sexual attention completely plausible.

Less convincing is the relationship between the Earl of Gloucester's two sons. Simon Manyonda is terrific as a gym-bunny Edmund, maintaining his workout routine as he boasts that he has a "shape as true as honest madam's issue". His own unbound libido is evidenced further in a bout of front-of-stage onanism that would have drawn catcalls from Shakespeare's groundlings. Patrons at the Old Vic merely gaped.

Harry Melling's Edgar, though, is problematic. While his willingness to strip to the buff and caper about like Lear's "bare, forked animal" on the lip of the stage is admirable, neither his Poor Tom persona nor his shepherd leading his blind father really mines the poetry. I have never, until this performance, heard the scene-stopping line "his heart burst smilingly" without experiencing a wave of grief. It left me dry-eyed.

Other characterisations are solid and good: Sargon Yelda is a fine Kent, adopting, in disguise, the accent of a Turkish migrant. Karl Johnson is a believably dithery Gloucester, the sort of loyal old cove who would have a Pac A Mac handy in the event of a storm. Danny Webb and William Chubb (as Cornwall and Albany) are believable husbands, one scheming, the other malleable. Only Rhys Ifans' Fool seems likely to divide audiences. For myself, I loved his Bob Dylan impression, his Halloween-mask rap on the blasted heath, and his clowning with two halves of eggshell which presage the blinding of Gloucester. What's more, his deep fondness for Lear and Lear's for him felt unforced and real.

The storm is the only scene in which the production gives full throttle to design. The set of Deborah Warner's 1985 King Lear consisted of three ladders and a galvanised bucket. Thirty years on she has taken it to the max. This storm employs acres of shivering black plastic sheeting, three split screens projecting film of extreme weather events, and an awful lot of noise. By the second press night, following complaints, discreet amplification at least rendered the speaking audible.

The bigger challenge remains how to deal with the post-storm scene in the hovel, and this is where Warner's production hits the doldrums. It's both chaotic and slack. And while it might have seemed a good idea to have Poor Tom tearing off bits of his bin bag loincloth, it only succeeds in making us think of rubbish and landfill - not helpful allusions. This is also when one begins to struggle with the sheer length of this little-cut version of the play: you're lucky to make it out of the door in under four hours.

The Fool's gimmicks aside, there are few moments that lighten the dark. Yet one laugh turns up unexpected in the final scene, when Jackson's Lear scolds: "Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician seem to see things thou dost not". If it stretches credulity to see a stick-thin 80-year-old sustain a marathon role with vocal energy and intellectual insight, it's frankly mind-boggling to learn that she only recently became the ex-MP for Hampstead and Finchley, having served as such for 23 years. Westminster's loss is theatre's gain. All hail King Glenda.

King Lear at the Old Vic booking to 3 December

Picture credit: Manuel Harlan

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From This Author Jenny Gilbert