Shakespeare nailed it: “Though she be little, she is fierce.” Glenda Jackson may look frail, but the 82-year-old legend performs the noble task of rescuing director Sam Gold’s rickety Broadway production of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. To be sure, the salvage job is all technique. But although Jackson fails to wring tears, let alone blood, from this production, the sheer intelligence of her performance makes it memorable.
There are plenty of references to Trump onstage, most obviously in the tacky gold paneling of the king’s throne room and the intentionally vulgar touches to Ann Roth’s costumes for Goneril (a scary Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan, ditto), the two witches — er, sisters — who flatter their vain father into giving them the lion’s share of his vast kingdom.
Only the elegantly subdued gown worn by the youngest sister, Cordelia (Ruth Wilson, who projects both brains and beauty), indicates who has the true class in this money-grubbing family. Wilson also doubles as an agile Fool, tenderly so in the scenes on the heath in which she comforts the mad king.
If there’s a throughline to Jackson’s masterful performance, it’s in Lear’s fear of allowing his suffering to drive him mad. Her initial “Let me not be mad” is understated, the mere acknowledgement that Lear’s well-ordered world has suddenly lost its balance. “Do not make me mad” is addressed directly to his conniving daughters, and Jackson invests it with just a touch of sadness. “I shall go mad” — again, directed to his daughters — is more of a warning, even a plea. By the time the king admits that “my mind begins to turn,” Jackson’s robust voice sinks lower, deeper. And when he finally surrenders to “the tempest in my head” and acknowledges that “that way madness lies,” it’s the man’s sheer willpower and the actor’s inner strength that take him to the declaration: “I will endure!”
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Jackson builds to every pregnant moment with the same mastery. We always speak of her magnificent voice, the depth and resonance of it. But in this herculean role, what really counts is the control of that instrument. The audience may find itself emotionally wiped out by the time we arrive at the storm-tossed heath. Jackson, however, is not. She’s just warming up.
The supporting performances are all over the place, and the fidelity to fashionable race/gender/age-blind casting sometimes requires work to figure out who’s who. Jayne Houdyshell is stolid and uninspired as the Earl of Gloucester, but John Douglas Thompson, one of the few in the cast who speak the speech as it was meant to be spoken, is faultlessly articulate as Kent. Sean Carvajal is good as Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar, while Pedro Pascal is pretty terrific as his illegitimate brother, Edmund.
The bland staging has no discernible unity or vision, and actors rarely connect. But there’s a hanging scene that will knock the wind out of you, with notable contributions from Jane Cox (lighting) and Scott Lehrer (sound), who also turn in neat work on the heath. The original music by Philip Glass was supposed to be a coup; this critic found it intrusive.
In the end, you’re really here for Glenda Jackson and the pure sound of that glorious voice. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.