King Lear, Old Vic, London — ‘Glenda Jackson is immensely poignant’

Glenda Jackson rises persuasively to one of Shakespeare’s toughest challenges

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Where, exactly, is King Lear set? Deborah Warner’s response to the question is to shear Shakespeare’s play from all context. Her new staging, starring Glenda Jackson, unfolds on a bright-white spartan set, where technicians scurry about before the action starts and where scene numbers are projected on to the walls. Into this stark empty space (designed by Warner with Jean Kalman) the play erupts: a timeless tragedy about age, madness, betrayal and responsibility.

It’s an approach that, though modern-dress, creates resonances without forcing them. It also reminds us that all drama is storytelling, demanding suspension of disbelief, and thus subtly supports its lead. Jackson may be a woman playing a man, but more importantly she’s an actor playing a character — and what a character. Tiny, frail and ferocious, she brings Lear to life wearing just a cardigan and slacks.

That Jackson should return to the stage, aged 80, after nearly 25 years’ absence, is admirable; that she should do it with Lear is more remarkable still: akin to a mountaineer returning to the fray with an assault on Everest. She begins brittle, teasing and capricious, making a joke of “crawling towards death”. But that brittleness becomes truculence as Goneril and Regan begin their neglect. It’s easy to see their point of view: this Lear is testy, volatile, even vicious. Sometimes Jackson telegraphs her feelings too much. But once Lear’s mind starts to crack, she becomes immensely poignant, staggering through the spectacular storm, drenched and half-dressed, as vivid, wild and whirling as the weather itself. Her vulnerability makes Lear’s newfound sympathy for the dispossessed all the more affecting.

Indeed, the fragility of old age and the wickedness of abusing it emerge strongly from this Lear. Any sympathy for Celia Imrie’s excellent, brusque Goneril and Jane Horrocks’ brassy Regan evaporates in the face of their indecent haste to rid themselves of their inconvenient old father. The easy slip from callousness into outright cruelty works well here too, with Danny Webb’s superbly nasty Cornwall. Rhys Ifans makes a funny, outrageous Fool with a desperate edge: the voice of Lear’s conscience but also of the times.

But there are problems — audibility being one — and some choices seem gimmicky. Simon Manyonda’s Edmund delivers significant speeches while working out, which is impressive, but also distracting. The political narrative doesn’t take hold clearly, meaning the momentum begins to falter. Mixed results, then. But it finishes movingly with Jackson pushing away all consolation as she cradles the dead Cordelia: a fittingly desolate end to this bleakest of tragedies.

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