Stick around for a couple of decades and you’ll get the chance to see any number of venerated actors of a certain age try to tackle the old beast that is King Lear. Since I began covering New York theater back in 2000, I’ve had the good fortune to witness Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella, John Lithgow and even Kevin Kline, as a spry 59-year-old, having a go at Shakespeare’s ravaged monarch.
Like many fans, though, I was especially eager to catch the latest star to play Lear on Broadway, since it would mark only the second time I’d see her in live performance. Yes, you read that pronoun right: If you didn’t already know, Glenda Jackson, Commander of the British Empire, plays the title role in Sam Gold’s new production of the tragedy, revisiting the part that marked her triumphant return to the stage after a sabbatical of more than 20 years, during which Jackson served as a member of Parliament.
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.
Let’s start with the leading lady, though, who arrives fresh off her Tony Award-winning turn as a geriatric survivor in last season’s stunning revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Jackson’s Lear has something of that character’s imperious air, but otherwise couldn’t be more different. Even her physical presence seems completely changed; she’s all compact, shriveled intensity, albeit with traces of the regal elegance that must have distinguished this king in his prime. Making her entrance in a natty tuxedo, her hair slicked and side-parted so that a lock swings jauntily forward, Jackson suggests John Hurt in one of his more dapper guises—or even David Bowie, had he remained with us a bit longer.
But gender is not really an issue in this Lear. Speaking her lines in a rich, rusty baritone that projects both masculine authority and the damage wrought by time—not to mention scheming offspring—Jackson delivers a devastating portrait of the king’s struggle to restore clarity and retain dignity as madness encroaches. She gets expert support from two other actresses cast in traditionally male roles: Jayne Houdyshell, bringing her sharp wit and wrenching poignance to the faithful Earl of Gloucester’s own struggle with a thankless child, and Ruth Wilson, who does supple double duty (as some scholars believe it was intended) as a palpably clear-eyed, pure-hearted Cordelia, Lear’s one honest daughter, and his Fool, whom Wilson endows with a cockney accent and a delightful physical buoyance.
Cordelia’s nasty siblings provide more thrills and chills in the hands of Aisling O’Sullivan, cast as a cold-eyed Regan, and Elizabeth Marvel, as a sardonic, hot-to-trot Goneril, who has a moment of blunt carnality with the bastard (in the literal and figurative senses) son of Gloucester, Edmund—played by Pedro Pascal as a sociopathic showman, preening blithely as he regals the audiences with his sinister plans. Other standouts include the masterful John Douglas Thompson, a model of robust decency as the Earl of Kent, and the deaf actor Russell Harvard, who as Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall, finds a primal urgency in sign language—which Gold uses extensively, having Michael Arden, as Cornwall’s aide, translate from spoken words, and accompany Harvard with speech.
Other directorial touches can seem gratuitous, or mannered—notably the inclusion of a string quartet (playing original music by Philip Glass) that steps to the front occasionally, as if to remind us we’re observing regal folk, however base their behavior. Ann Roth’s vivid costume design offers more nuance, emphasizing character over specifics of time or place. Marvel and O’Sullivan are given fussy gowns and, later, more casual wear and accessories that exude narcissism—O’Sullivan’s Regan sports gold bangles, while Marvel’s Goneril emerges from her tryst clad in only a long, stretchy top—while Wilson’s Cordelia appears first in basic black, then dresses down in jeans.
Jackson, of course, gets to go full-out disheveled, at one point romping about in what appears to be a particularly homely pajama set. For an actress who has always eschewed vanity, Lear has clearly provided a prize worth relishing—for her and for us.