She’s Lear, She’s Here, Get Used To It

One thing about this obtuse king is undeniably magisterial: a larger-than-life rage.

Howl, howl, howl, howl! Photos: Brigitte Lacombe.

When Glenda Jackson returned to the London stage after more than a 20-year absence, it was in the title role of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. A bold choice to play what is, of course, a male role and one of the toughest in theater annals at that. But maybe it wasn’t that odd a choice: She’d strayed from acting to become a member of Parliament, and both that position and Shakespeare’s monarch involve governing England, before and after the Magna Carta.

Now Jackson is back on Broadway in a new Lear revival, but after a much shorter absence. Only last year she copped the Tony for her towering performance in the revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Throughout the piece (an impressive comeback for Albee when first produced in the ’90s), Jackson, uh, ruled the room. “Towering” was an apt adjective for her performance because throughout Three Tall Women, she looked and performed as if she were as tall as the title suggests.

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Of course, Jackson isn’t tall in the literal sense. She’s actually a mere wisp of a woman — or, in Shakespeare’s tragedy, a mere wisp of a man. Which does affect her portrayal of the fond, foolish old monarch who comes to rue the day he divided his kingdom between his too-flattering daughters, Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan), while disinheriting his not-flattering-enough daughter, Cordelia (Ruth Wilson).

For now, let’s set aside the fact that all three of Lear’s daughters are taller than their father — Goneril and Regan towering (that word again) over him. Let’s just focus on the effect that Jackson’s diminutive stature has on her character. At one heated moment, Lear says “Ay, he’s every inch a king,” which doesn’t amount to that many inches here.

From his very entrance on the set that Miriam Buether has designed as a, yes, towering and tarnished-gilt box — which the production is then stuck with when the blasted heath scenes arrive — this Lear looks like a small man who may have never been an entirely authoritative ruler. There little of the majestic about him, little of even faded majesty.

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Jayne Houdyshell and Glenda Jackson.

Hold it. One thing about this obtuse king is undeniably magisterial: a larger-than-life rage. Flask-sized Jackson has that. (Whenever she spoke in Parliament, the backbenchers must have quaked.) Now that she’s once again within a proscenium, Jackson lends Lear a mighty vocal power, and she uses it for all it’s worth. Her quivering vocal chords are undoubtedly worth a sold-out run and, at the very least, a follow-up Tony nomination.

Yet do they add up to a first-rate performance? Many will say yes, but I will demur. Almost from start to finish, Jackson’s Lear is rrroaring, rrrattling, rrranting — rrrolling her rrrrs to beat the band and hurling every word, every last crystalline Shakespearean syllable, like cannon balls fired at a ferocious sky. And almost accompanied with clenched, raised fists. (Jane Cox is the lighting director; Scott Lehrer is the sound director.)

Jackson’s choice to make Lear so stentorian must be intended, at least partially, to compensate for her/his height, but it doesn’t allow much latitude for varied characterization. To use Lear’s word, she doesn’t “anatomize” the broken king sufficiently as he travels between inhospitable Goneril and Regan and their hubbies Albany (Dion Johnstone) and Cornwall (Russell Harvard), or when Lear wonders the heath with his Fool (Wilson, again), or with the self-exiled Edgar (Sean Carvajal).

Jackson is so much wedded to her blasted-heath blasting that when she reaches the final scene where both Cordelia and Lear die, the usually heartbreaking lines — “Howl, howl, howl, howl” (did she drop one “howl”?) and “Never, never, never, never, never” — aren’t as painfully meaningful as they should be. (To avoid Jackson carrying the deceased Cordelia, director Sam Gold comes up with a new father-daughter image that I won’t describe here, but it does lead to excising Lear’s wounded line, “My poor fool is hang’d.”)

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Jackson’s Lear is unforgettable, but is it all it could be? Does it differ greatly or not at all from the performance she gave in director Deborah Warner’s version at London’s Old Vic? I missed what sounds like a treatment of the play that received quite a different approach. This is Gold’s go, at any rate, and, as he often does, he dreams up surprising notions. The most surprising turns Regan’s volatile and ambitious husband, Cornwall, into a deaf man and puts the hearing-impaired Harvard into the part. For this liberty, Gold inserts constant simultaneous signing, mostly by Michael Arden. It’s an example of thoughtful contemporary casting, but strong as Harvard is, intense as Arden is, the change has distracting aspects as well.

Another intriguing casting fillip employs Wilson (whose Cordelia vanishes for a couple acts) as Lear’s Fool. She’s as fine at this as at outspoken Cordelia, who looks concerned for her situation even before Lear implores her to express her love for him. The least confounding alteration is that Gloucester is also played by a woman, the can-do-no-wrong Jayne Houdyshell. Offering a properly puzzled take on Lear’s bamboozled second-banana father, she looks not unlike S. Z. Sakall, the great 1930s and ’40s Warner Bros. and MGM movie staple.

Of the other actors in the retinue, Pedro Pascal stands out as illegitimate Edmund, a man above nothing to get what he wants. His opening “Thou, Nature, art my goddess” speech is delivered so unctuously it all but slithers into the audience. As Kent, John Douglas Thompson, another can-do-no-wrong-actor, is the soul of loyalty. Marvel’s Goneril and O’Sullivan’s Regan are both serpent’s-tooth sharp — so cutting, the air practically bleeds when they speak. Matthew Maher, as loathsome as loathsome Oswald should be, nicely enters and exits as if encased in an invisible icebox.

Throughout the production — well, if not entirely throughout, nearly throughout — violinists Cenovia Cummins and Martin Agee, violist Chris Cardona and cellist Stephanie Cummins play Philip Glass’ original music, and rather generic music it is. Chastising Cordelia for her refusal to gush over him, Lear says, “Nothing comes of nothing.” Well, sometimes not much comes of something, and that’s the case here. Befittingly middling for a middling Lear.