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Returning to the stage after 25 years away, Glenda Jackson makes an extraordinary Lear: an elderly woman standing in for an old king. Her performance centers on a contradiction, her slight frame at odds with her powerful voice. In this production at the Old Vic, it’s a performance that owes a lot to its context, and director Deborah Warner’s bare Brechtian staging — though it becomes confused late in the show — makes much of the sheer theater of “King Lear.”

Jackson’s performance gives gender the slip. She is herself as Lear, still a father and a king, still a man, just played by a woman. It’s as if she stands in for him: her tiny frame in his too-big clothes; her cracked pepper voice in place of his. In a sense, she is ‘not-Lear’ – his opposite – but then so is Lear himself. “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” he asks. “Lear’s shadow,” his Fool replies. Age has changed him almost out of recognition: a pale reflection of his former self.

At the same time, Jackson lets us see the man he once was and still sees himself as. Her Lear acts as if his authority is undimmed and his masculinity remains manifest. His commands crack through the air, and he banters along with beer-swilling young knights. We see the reality: a slight, elderly body, emasculated and frail. It’s a brilliant dislocation of actor and character, of body and behaviour. The more classic a Lear Jackson plays, the more extraordinary a Lear she makes, and the madness all unfolds from that. Jackson hardly needs to act it. She’s a Lear increasingly out of sorts with himself.

Warner’s minimalist, modern-dress staging holds that duality beautifully. It is absolute theater: both real and fiction; the thing itself and its shadow. Her vast white stage – Jean Kalman’s design manages a monumental sparseness – inverts itself for the storm scene. Black plastic sheeting forms a dark void and cracks its cheeks as the world, like Lear, turns inside out. Afterwards comes color and calm. Warner tunes you in to the play’s shape, both its overarching structure and of individual scenes.

Without setting, we get action and formation; actors going into scenes unarmed. It can be thrilling to watch. Dressed casually, as if their individual characters had raided their own personal wardrobes, they smoke and skip and eat and drink, punctuating their performances with real actions that pull us back into the present. Occasionally, the production pushes too hard – Gloucester’s eyeball flies into the audience, for instance – but it lets you admire the craft of a crack cast; actors treating Shakespeare like a workout.

At best that minimalism allows the play’s multiplicity to emerge more fully, and this is a Lear that never confines itself to a specific reading. However, honoring that complexity can seem noncommittal.

Gender comes to the fore initially, with Lear’s knights a spectrum of masculine tropes – street-sharp teenagers, tweedy types and boors. Rhys Ifans’ Fool, clad in a superman hoodie (complete with cape), bounds around them like he’s staggered out of the pub. Lear’s eldest daughters call to mind Jackson’s famous speech about Margaret Thatcher. Celia Imrie’s trouser-suited Goneril might be “deputed by female gender… but a woman — not on my terms,” while Jane Horrock’s Regan is highly, highly sexed; a harlot who goes straight for the crotch.

However, that muddles with imagery of class – wine-drinkers push lager-louts out of the play – and of generational conflict. In dressing Harry Melling’s Edgar and Morfydd Clark’s Cordelia in the clothes of the Occupy movement, Warner puts the burden of hope on their shoulders. The appearance of the desert camouflage wear of Iraq raises the possibility that the whole is an indictment of Blairism – the rising middle class that erased its elders and screwed its juniors.

The reading never fully coheres, but it would be remarkable, given that Jackson sat on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s benches for so long. One line pings out about all: “Get thee glass eyes,” says Lear, “and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things that thou dost not.”

London Theater Review: Glenda Jackson as ‘King Lear’

Old Vic, London; 1,000 seats; £65 ($80) top. Opened Nov. 4, 2016; reviewed Nov. 5, 2016. Running time: <strong>3 HOURS, 30 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: An Old Vic production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.
  • Crew: Directed by Deborah Warner; Production design, Jean Kalman and Deborah Warner; lighting, Jean Kalman; composition and sound design, Mel Mercier; video, 59 Prods.; costume, Zeb Lalljee.
  • Cast: Fehinti Balogun, Fiston Barek, Bessie Carter, William Chubb, Morfydd Clark, Jonathan Coote, George Eggay, Matt Gavan, David Hargreaves, Jane Horrocks, Joanne Howarth, Rhys Ifans, Celia Imrie, Glenda Jackson, Karl Johnson, Stephen Kennedy, Simon Manyonda, Harry Melling, Mark Rose, Gary Sefton, James Staddon, Danny Webb, Sargon Yelda.
  • Music By: