As King Lear, Glenda Jackson enters with a casual swagger, giving off a scent of power that’s lasted a lifetime. But Lear is portrayed by an 82-year-old woman, lean and light and, at 5’6, dwarfed by the dignitaries and daughters who share the stage in the opening scene at the Cort Theater. If Jackson’s performance turns this inventive but imperfect production into a must-see of the Broadway Spring season, it’s not just because of her impressive stamina and control. It’s also the appearance of physical fragility that helps make her Lear stand out.
Shakespeare’s text has Lear gathering his three daughters to give them his kingdom so that, “unburdened,” he can “crawl toward death.” Yet most actors I’ve seen in the role start off as powerhouses. If they’re still so strong and mighty, why are they giving up their kingdom?
One recent exception was the Lear of Antony Sher (which I saw last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) but his Lear didn’t just start out old and tired; he also lacked any sense of command, which made his descent less vertiginous and thus less compelling.
Dressed in a casual modern suit and a short androgynous hairstyle, Jackson’s Lear offers the evidence of age while exuding an easy authority. When Lear orders his daughters to compete for the largest share of his inheritance by proclaiming their love for him, Cordelia (Ruth Wilson) refuses to flatter him. Lear at first laughs good-naturedly.
It’s as if his youngest daughter were surely just making a joke; who would deny their king? When he realizes she’s serious and will not yield, he abruptly disinherits her. In these first few moments, Jackson presents a portrait of Lear closer to a modern dictator than an ancient warrior — charismatic rather than physically imposing; not a blusterer nor a brute, but just as mercurial and cruel.
The King Lear at Broadway’s Cort Theater is an entirely different production than the Lear at London’s Old Vic in 2016 that marked Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage after a 23-year career as a member of the British Parliament. Sam Gold directs the Broadway production. Gold has done wonders with new plays, such as Fun Home and A Doll’s House Part 2. He is no less inventive with the classics. For Othello, he rebuilt an East Village theater into a modern military barracks, and presented some extended scenes completely in the dark, the seating and the lighting threatening to upstage his stars David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig. Oscar Isaac walked around in his underpants in Gold’s production of Hamlet. Unwilling to tread carefully with cherished texts, he’s sometimes accused of stomping on them, such as with his Glass Menagerie starring Sally Field, which was so stripped down it didn’t even include a glass menagerie.
At their best, directors like Gold and Ivo van Hove create productions featuring some memorable theatrics that illuminate the classic text; at their worst, some memorable theatrics that undermine the work.
Gold creates some memorable theatrics in his King Lear, some of which illuminate the text for us, little of which undermine it for me.
Simply by casting women as male characters — Jackson in the title role, Jayne Houdyshell as the Earl of Gloucester, and Ruth Wilson (in a second role) as the Fool – Gold gets us thinking about gender and its connection to power. We notice, perhaps for the first time, that there are no mothers in King Lear.
Although Shakespeare wrote the tragedy in 1605 about a king who is said to have reigned more than 2,000 years earlier, Gold sets the story in the modern age. The characters are in modern dress and use guns instead of swords. Miriam Buether’s set before intermission looks like an embassy reception hall, all gold walls and flags, along with a porcelain bulldog and little roaring lion. (The change in the set after intermission, which I won’t spoil, is simple but dramatic, as well as a spot-on metaphor.) The contemporary setting for the play is far from unprecedented, yet it seems especially well timed given this story about a foolish ruler swayed by flattery.
The one directorial choice that I found most problematic was the original music by Philip Glass — who, tellingly, van Hove also hired to score his 2016 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. As in that production, the near-constant underscoring of Glass’s trademark staccato composition seems at times to be competing with the dialogue rather than enhancing it. There are also moments that come close to parody, when the graceful string quartet dressed in elegant black concert apparel takes up a perch on stage near the desperate, battling characters. But most of the time, the music adds to the mood and the tension.
As with almost any director, it’s in the casting of Lear that Gold most makes his mark. He has chosen a diverse and talented cast. Many are New York theater pros who have long track records or made recent splashes. Three such performers make notable Broadway debuts: Matthew Maher (so wonderful in The Flick and Mr. Burns Off-Broadway) is an appropriately sniveling Oswald, which gets deserved laughs, unusual for the role. Sean Carvajal (who at the last minute took on the role of the imprisoned killer Angel in Jesus Hopped the A Train and won a slew of awards for it) is a captivating Edgar, though frankly I’ve never seen anybody less than watchable in this juicy role of the legitimate son of Gloucester who pretends to be crazy but perhaps becomes half-crazy in the process. Dion Johnstone (Barrow Street Theater’s Coriolanus) makes a suitably upright, outraged and cuckolded Duke of Albany.
John Douglas Thompson, always phenomenal (Jitney, The Emperor Jones, most recently on Broadway in Carousel) is a stand-out as the Earl of Kent, the king’s loyal defender; his robust physical presence as a man of action is as much a joy to watch as is his command of Shakespeare’s language a treat to listen to.
Elizabeth Marvel, who is probably best known for her screen roles (such as President Elizabeth Keane on Homeland), has a long list of New York stage credits. Her portrayal of Goneril, the eldest of Lear’s daughters and Albany’s unfaithful spouse, is sure to generate some controversy, because the character is not just power-mad but sex-crazed. There are some explicit scenes (obviously a directorial choice) that Marvel executes bravely. If her actions are too vulgar to be a turn on, neither was I turned off by this effort to emphasize a different aspect of her villainy.
Sure to be even more controversial is the casting of Russell Harvard as the vicious Duke of Cornwall, as well as of Michael Arden, who is listed in the credits as “Aide to Cornwall.” I personally think this dual casting was inspired. Harvard, who made a remarkable New York debut in Tribes in 2012, and then his Broadway debut in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening in 2015, is deaf. As Cornwell, husband of Lear’s daughter Regan, he primarily communicates in American Sign Language. Arden, who was the director of Spring Awakening, portrays Cornwall’s sign interpreter. When Cornwall signs, Arden speaks English. When others are talking in Cornwall’s presence, Arden signs for him. (It’s an extra treat that when Maher as Oswald is delivering messages to Cornwall for his master Goneril, he both speaks and uses sign.) What is most inspired about the pairing of Harvard’s and Arden’s characters is that Arden’s aide becomes the character in Shakespeare’s text, identified only as a servant, who tries to stop Cornwall from mutilating Gloucester, only to be killed by his master. Unlike the script, the character in this production doesn’t just spring out of nowhere; we’ve witnessed their relationship, which makes their fight to the death all the more intense.
The other principal cast members make less of an impression. Ruth Wilson is better as Cordelia than as the fool. Pedro Pascal (known for Game of Thrones and Narcos) doesn’t feel enough of a dastardly, two-faced schemer. Most disappointing is Jayne Houdyshell as Earl of Gloucester. Gloucester is perhaps the most memorable character after Lear because he gets his eyes gouged out. He is also important to the play because of his parallel story – Gloucester puts his trust in the wrong son, just as Lear puts his trust in the two wrong daughters. Houdyshell is best known for her Tony winning performance as the mother in The Humans, followed by a Tony nomination for her role as the servant in A Doll’s House, Part 2, and has been a mainstay of New York theater for decades.
I have never seen Houdyshell give a bad performance, and indeed I’ve even seen her masterfully portray authoritative figure, such as a battling public intellectual feminist in a play called Relevance. She turns out to be adept at Shakespeare’s language, but Houdyshell’s Gloucester lacks a sense of authority or energy, and her ultimate pathos is less devastating to me than other Gloucesters I’ve seen. Is this a role, one starts to wonder, that is simply resistant to gender-blind casting?
The contrast with Glenda Jackson’s performance might make the British actress’ accomplishment feel all the more remarkable. The daughter of a bricklayer, Jackson won two Oscars nearly back to back (for Women in Love and A Touch of Class) and was nominated for two more (Sunday Bloody Sunday and Hedda). But that was more than 40 years ago. Just a year ago, she returned to Broadway after an absence of 30 years in Three Tall Women , winning her first Tony. But that role, a rich old woman of 92 who is dying, seems a more obvious fit, and makes fewer physical demands. And although that play won Albee his third Pulitzer, it has none of the intimidating centuries-old reputation of both the play and the role of King Lear.
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” King Lear exclaims famously, as he sees his daughters betray him, and begins his descent into madness and tragedy. Is it hubris to attend this first Broadway production of King Lear in 15 years, and think: Glenda Jackson can!
King Lear is on stage at the Cort Theater (138 W 48th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues,New York, NY 10036) through July 7, 2019.
Tickets and details
King Lear. Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Sam Gold, original score by Philip Glass. Scenic design by Miriam Buether, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Jane Cox, and sound design Scott Lehrer. Featuring Glenda Jackson as King Lear, Jayne Houdyshell as Earl of Gloucester, Elizabeth Marvel as Goneril, Aisling O’Sullivan as Regan, Pedro Pascal as Edmund, John Douglas Thompson as Earl of Kent, Ruth Wilson as Cordelia and the Fool, Sean Carvajal as Edgar, Dion Johnstone as Duke of Albany, Russell Harvard as Duke of Cornwall, Matthew Maher as Oswald, Michael Arden as Aide to Cornwall, Justin Cunningham, Ian Lassiter, Che Ayende,Therese Barbato, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Daniel Marmion, and John McGinty.