King Lear

Theater, Shakespeare
3 out of 5 stars
Glenda Jackson in King Lear
Photograph: Courtesy Brigette Lacombe

Glenda Jackson is in her own world as the maddening monarch of Shakespeare's tragedy.

Theater review by Adam Feldman 

“Nothing will come of nothing,” chides King Lear when his favorite daughter, the honest Cordelia, refuses to dote on him as richly as he demands. Enraged, he disinherits her, dividing her share of his realm between her honey-tongued but stone-hearted sisters, Goneril and Regan. From this vain fit of pique the rest of Lear’s troubles derive; and at this moment in Sam Gold’s handsome, scattered staging, one begins to sense that this production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, with the estimable but withholding Glenda Jackson in the title role, may not deliver the greatness it promises. 

In his pivotal rejection of Cordelia, this Lear seems less furious than peevish, which proves true of Jackson’s performance throughout. So deeply does Jackson adopt the king’s sense of entitlement, perhaps, that she barely stoops to emotional display at all. With her cracked cheeks and acidic voice, the great English actor—who made a stunning return to the Broadway stage last year in Three Tall Women—ploughs through the text with withering dismissiveness. She is small and nearly self-contained: declamatory and well-spoken, but detached from the action. Her Lear never seems to lose his marbles; he merely seems inclined to play with them alone, leaving everyone around him to scrounge for other games.

Gold’s production is full of interesting directorial choices that do not quite cohere into a shared universe for King Lear’s characters to inhabit. The subtle Ruth Wilson plays Cordelia with soulful, depressive interiority—in a wise stroke of casting, she doubles as the Fool—while the hyperintense Aisling O’Sullivan, as Regan, looks at every moment like lasers are about to shoot from her eyes. Jayne Houdyshell, John Douglas Thompson and Dion Johnstone offer conventional turns as the play’s Lear loyalists; Sean Carvajal flails through the thankless role of Edgar. The Duke of Cornwall is played, in a kilt, by deaf actor Russell Harvard, with Michael Arden signing translation. 

Some of these performances work well on their own terms: It is amusing to watch Elizabeth Marvel’s tightly wound Goneril unravel into splayed-out debauchery after her tryst with the bastard Edmund—played by a gently sardonic Pedro Pascal—and Matthew Maher’s bemused Oswald dies with a hilarious shrug. What’s missing is a larger sense of shape. Miriam Buether’s stately gold box of a set, though gorgeously lighted by Jane Cox, doesn’t provide much guidance as to the physical reality; Philip Glass’s original score, played live by a string quartet in a corner of the stage, swells up from time to time, mostly adding notes of confusion. (The Glass, in this case, seems half empty.)

After intermission, the string quartet moves to the front and briefly plays directly to the audience, as though we were guests at a fancy cocktail party. For all its sometimes outré choices, this King Lear is, in its way, a cautious and tasteful prestige-theater event. Shakespeare’s play is huge, full of wild stretches of language and feeling. Yet Gold seems to strive for something smaller. Lear’s rowdy train of knights is a few gents in tuxedos opening bottles of champagne; even the grotesque blinding scene seems oddly heavy-lidded. And Lear’s death, in this account, is nearly as much of a shrug as Oswald’s: The end comes suddenly, tactfully, almost as an afterthought. This production doesn’t want to be indulgent or overwrought; perhaps it doesn’t want to risk dishonesty. But after three and a half hours of diffuse dramatics, I felt nothing. 

Cort Theatre (Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Sam Gold. With Glenda Jackson, Ruth Wilson. Running time: 3hrs 30mins. One intermission.

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