×

Broadway Review: ‘King Lear’ Starring Glenda Jackson

Tiny but mighty, Glenda Jackson carries this 'Lear' on her back.

With:
Glenda Jackson, Jayne Houdyshell, Elizabeth Marvel, Aisling O’Sullivan, Pedro Pascal, John Douglas Thompson, Ruth Wilson, Michael Arden, Che Ayende, Therese Barbato, Sean Carvajal, Justing Cunningham, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Russell Harvard, Dion Johnstone, Ian Lassiter, Matthew Maher, Daniel Marmion, John McGinty.

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!”

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.

Popular on Variety

Broadway Review: 'King Lear' Starring Glenda Jackson

Cort Theater; 1,040 seats; $159 top. Opened April 4, 2019. Reviewed March 30. Running Time: THREE HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: A production by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, No Guarantees, Stephanie P. McClelland, Universal Theatrical Group, Len Blavatnik, James L. Nederlander, Rosalind Productions, Inc., Barbara Manocherian, John Gore Organization, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Jamie deRoy, Wendy Federman, Al Nocciolino, Candy Spelling, True Love Productions, Adam Rodner, and executive producers Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, and John Johnson, of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare.

Creative: Directed by Sam Gold. Original music by Philip Glass. Sets, Miriam Buether; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Scott Lehrer; hair & makeup, Campbell Young Associates; production stage manager, Kevin Bertolacci.

Cast: Glenda Jackson, Jayne Houdyshell, Elizabeth Marvel, Aisling O’Sullivan, Pedro Pascal, John Douglas Thompson, Ruth Wilson, Michael Arden, Che Ayende, Therese Barbato, Sean Carvajal, Justing Cunningham, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Russell Harvard, Dion Johnstone, Ian Lassiter, Matthew Maher, Daniel Marmion, John McGinty.

More Legit

  • Mark Rylance Oscars 2016

    'Bridge of Spies' Actor Mark Rylance Leads Union Drive for Coronavirus Relief Donations

    U.K. entertainment industry union Equity has pledged £1 million ($1.2 million) to support its members who have been affected by the pandemic-induced industry shutdown. Equity is asking for more donations, stating that the vast majority of its 47,000 members earn modest sums and do not have savings as a fall-back option. The appeal for further [...]

  • Directors Coronavirus

    Economic Package For Freelancers Elicits Mixed Response From U.K. Industry

    The long-awaited economic measures for the self-employed revealed by U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak on Thursday have elicited mixed response from the film and TV industry’s predominantly freelance workforce. Self-employed individuals can claim 80% of their average income over the last three years up to £2,500 ($3,000) a month, which is taxable. To [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    Critic’s Notebook: The Night Before Broadway Went Dark

    Let me preface this by saying the story I’m about to tell is not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Two weeks ago, I rushed to New York City to catch “The Inheritance” before it closed on Broadway. I’d been tracking the play by Matthew Lopez — a multigenerational, six-and-a-half-hour monument that resurrects E.M. Forster [...]

  • Mark Blum dead

    Mark Blum, 'Desperately Seeking Susan' Star, Dies From Coronavirus Complications

    Actor Mark Blum, who appeared in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Crocodile Dundee” and the TV series “You,” has died due to complications from coronavirus. He was 69. The Playwrights Horizons theater group and SAG-AFTRA executive vice president Rebecca Damon confirmed the news on Thursday. It is with such deep sorrow that I’m writing to share the news [...]

  • U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi

    U.K. Chancellor Announces Emergency Measures for Freelancers

    The U.K. has finally announced an economic relief package for freelancers not in employment after much of the country’s creative industries shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced a new self-employed income support scheme on Thursday. Self-employed individuals can claim 80% of their average income over the last three [...]

  • Celia Keenan-Bolger73rd Annual Tony Awards, Show,

    Tony Awards Postponed Due to Coronavirus Pandemic

    The Tony Awards are the latest industry event to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The American Theatre Wing, which backs the show, announced on Wednesday that the 74th edition of the annual celebration of the best of theater will be pushed back indefinitely. The ceremony was originally scheduled to air live on CBS, [...]

  • Debra Messing Golden Globes

    'Caroline, Or Change,' 'Birthday Candles' Postpone Broadway Runs Due to Coronavirus

    Roundabout Theatre Company is moving its hotly anticipated revival of “Caroline, Or Change” to the fall, as well as its upcoming production of “Birthday Candles” with Debra Messing. The shifts are an acknowledgment of a painful reality. Theaters in New York City have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and with the rate of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content