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The legendary Glenda Jackson returns to play Shakespeare's mad monarch
Let’s talk about Glenda Jackson. Aged 80, and having just spent a third of her life as the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, even the most embittered erstwhile Tory opponent would surely give the double-Oscar-winner a free pass if her return to the stage as Shakespeare’s ailing King Lear was a little frail or underpowered.
No fear: it turns out there’s no vocal warm up quite like a quarter century of parliamentary scrapping. Fierce and flinty, Jackson looks like she was hewn from rock and her voice sounds like it could split mountains. She plays Lear as a man for the sake of not monkeying wth the words, but gender doesn’t feel like a big deal here: this Lear is more elemental than that. A formidable presence even at lowest ebb, she locks into the doomed monarch's wild verse with a fierce, ritualistic intensity and boiling anger. When the giant storm arrives in act three, Jackson and director Deborah Warner give us the sense Lear may have summoned it through force of words alone. And when it does arrive, her voice effortlessly soars above it. Jackson looks old, but in the way rocks or trees are old, and only seem to grow in vitality as Lear’s madness intensifies.
However. 'King Lear' is a big old play and the title character is only one part of it. In many respects this is the Deborah Warner show and the results are mixed. Co-designed by Warner and Jean Kalman, storm scene excepted the set is a series of blank white screens that look halfway between a TV studio and an art gallery. They’re kind of maddening: they strip away any specificity of place and give a sense of characters drifting through a chic limbo - which would be fine in a smaller play, but in sprawling 'Lear' it often makes it hard to follow what's going on. In a fine cast, only a limited number of characters make a cut through, really, though the ones that do make a big impression - foremost Rhys Ifans's wild, fourth wall-breaking Fool, a bizarro force of nature who almost seems to be an extension of the old king’s id (best joke of press night - he gurgles the word 'wahaca' while vomiting, presumably a reference to the chain's recent norovirus woes).
I wonder if Jackson’s performance really gains anything from Warner’s production, but fair play to her for pairing with an interesting director for this comeback. And it really does feel like a comeback: not a last lap of honour, but the return of a great actor with more to give.