With the arrival of her mighty Lear, Glenda Jackson has, in the span of a year, provided Broadway with twin portraits of once towering figures humbled by age – last year a matriarch in Three Tall Women, now theater’s ultimate patriarch in King Lear, opening tonight at the Cort Theatre. I’ve no doubt she could come back next spring as young Harry Potter if she sets her mind to it.
So ferocious, so sinewy is her take on Shakespeare’s lion in winter that those famously spoiled daughters and their menfolk would seem wise to send their regrets and just not show up to any family reunions. Lucky for us, they give as good as they get.
Directed by Sam Gold (A Doll’s House, Part 2) , produced by Scott Rudin and running through July 7, Broadway’s latest Lear features a cast that include’s The Affair‘s much missed Ruth Wilson, the note perfect Jayne Houdyshell (like Jackson, playing male) and that doomed libertine from Game of Thrones Pedro Pascal. Given a wickedly sly look by scenic designer Miriam Buether (all that Trump Tower gold can’t be unintentional), this Lear is a knock-out.
With an era-hopping mix of contemporary dress styles (costumes by Ann Roth, who else?) and accompanied by an on-stage string quartet playing an exciting original score by Philip Glass – the music could well be considered a Greek chorus in itself – this Lear is all new and not to be confused with Jackson’s recent London take on the role. I didn’t see that one so can’t draw comparisons, but can only surmise that time and repetition have allowed for the second-nature ease we witness. Or maybe she fit the role from Day One. Foolhardy to make assumptions about this actress.
Attired, for the most part, in a roomy but smart black suit and polka-dot waistcoat of Churchill-vintage (to my eye, anyway, but maybe that’s just the ever-present onstage ceramic bulldog playing tricks), his floppy hair in classic English schoolboy cut (or, if you prefer, Thin White Duke-era Bowie), Jackson’s Lear is no feeble has-been but rather a too-soon-sidelined warrior. Perhaps he’s slipping, this king, and knows what’s coming, but that sandpaper roar of a voice and cut-to-the-quick glare give new meaning to the tragedy of forced retirement.
You know the plot. Lear, about to divide up the kingdom, demands confirmation of his daughters’ love and devotion; the two flatterers, Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel, starting slow and finishing with a gut punch) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan, businesslike viper, syrupy voice, long blonde hair, draw your own conclusions), get the kingdom, then betray. Honest Cordelia (Wilson) won’t play along, gets nothing but trouble, keeps her dignity and earns the old man’s last-minute gratitude. Things end badly for all concerned.
Unfolding initially in an expansive golden room that could pass for the gilded lobby of someone’s idea of five-star hotel paradise (ahem), with statues of a lion and that bulldog flanking an ever-mutating, multi-purpose sectional banquet table, this Lear is a production of many memorable parts and moments.
To choose a few: Pascal (he played Oberyn Martell, the take-no-prisoners hedonist with a heart in the fourth season of Thrones), in a tux that will soon enough slide nearly off, introducing himself to the audience in an immensely charming, conspiratorial address; Houdyshell’s Earl of Gloucestor howling as his eyes are plucked out in one of the most viscerally unsettling depictions of stage violence this side of Inishmore; and Sean Carvajal’s near-naked, half-mad Edgar wailing about the cold like some graveyard ghost (and special kudos to the old-school storm effects, courtesy of Jane Cox’s lightning flash lighting and Scott Lehrer’s sound design that, unless there’s some cutting edge computer trickery going on, might well be making excellent use of metal sheet thunder).
And in what might be the production’s riskiest gambit, Wilson doubles as the Fool – that’s tradition – in a manner suggesting a baggy-pants music hall comic crossed with Chaplin’s Little Tramp and with a Cockney accent that could use super-titles. A tad off-putting initially, the performance grows in strength and vitality and even poignance, as if Wilson and director Gold have decided that only a truly go-for-broke approach could withstand the force of nature that is Jackson. They choose wisely.
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.