Glenda Jackson is the highlight of an unusual “Lear”


Brooke McCormick

"King Lear" is currently playing on Broadway at the Cort Theater

Julia Spano, Staff writer

There’s one moment which I think sums up this year’s Glenda Jackson-led King Lear perfectly. For those unfamiliar with this Shakespeare story, the titular character, slipping into senility and old age, has been kicked out of his home by his two most conniving daughters. With a combination of studied, octagenarian prowess and raw, angered emotion, Jackson disappears into Lear’s raging monologue so well that one forgets that they are watching a performance… and then the thunder effects get really loud and a string quartet starts playing over her, to the point where it’s nigh impossible to tell her glorious monologue from the rest of the rabble.

Don’t get me wrong– Jackson’s King Lear is certainly recognizable as the Shakespeare adored by English majors and ordinary Joes alike. The plot is pretty well-known, but for those who need a recap, it begins with the titular Lear deciding how he will divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril (played by Elizabeth Marvel), Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan), and Cordelia (Ruth Wilson). The former two shower him with hollow praise, and get large shares of land; Cordelia, however, remains humble and honest. Lear grows furious at her curt explanation and banishes her from the kingdom. He soon realizes that he made a mistake as Goneril and Regan plot to remove him of his power and banish him from his home. In a parallel story, the Earl of Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell) is persuaded by his conniving son, Edmund (Pedro Pascal) to murder his other son, Edgar (Sean Carvajal), and ends up in a similar predicament as Lear.

I won’t spoil what actually happen next, but suffice it to say that there won’t be much of a happy ending for most of our heroes and villains; Lear is firmly categorized as part of Shakespeare’s “tragedy” canon, and is one of his bleakest and most abstract plays. Thankfully, the acting and casting of King Lear brings it to life excellently. There tends to be a certain (and rather ridiculous) skepticism around actors portraying opposite-gendered characters, but Jackson instantly puts all doubts to rest the moment she swaggers onto the stage. Jackson has been acting on Broadway and in film since 1957, and her experience– in British politics as well as acting– allows her to capture both the rage and the tenderness of Lear in her performance.  While the other actors don’t quite match Jackson, they all do excellent jobs. Pascal smirks and slithers as a bemusedly evil Edmund, while Douglass brings sympathy to the role of the Earl of Kent. The cast is consistently steady across the board, with Wilson’s double-turn as Cordelia and Lear’s deceptively intelligent Fool a particular standout.

Director Sam Gold’s alterations, on the other hand, are a bit inconsistent. Rather than using the play’s traditional staging, Gold transported Lear’s setting to the modern day and hired famous minimalist composer Phillip Glass to add a modern-classical score, whilst keeping the text (most of the text– we’ll get to that in a minute) close to the letter. Some of Gold’s alterations work well– much of the play takes place in Lear’s palace, a swank dinner party which slowly decays as Lear’s kingdom crumbles. And the use of a minimalist set to separate the play’s critical third act from the acts before and after it is also an inspired choice.

Others, however, don’t serve as much more than distractions. It’s apparent (though not quite so obvious as some reviews make it seem) that Gold is trying to draw some parallels between King Lear and a certain United States president– the tasteless gaudiness of Lear’s castle looks oddly similar to the proverbial Trump Tower, while Lear’s motley Fool points out his American-flag-studded socks while reciting the line, “Then shall the realm of this nation come to great confusion”.

Now, I agree more than disagree with Gold’s politics, but these political connections to Shakespeare’s story seem tenuous at best. Worse, the set alterations seem stuck in an awkward middle ground where they’re too distracting to be ignored and too vague to add anything to Shakespeare’s text. What’s the significance of referring to guns as swords? Why do we have French soldiers clothed in American army garb speaking with British accents? What does a brief sex scene between Goneril and Edmund add to the story, aside from some laughter from the audience?

But hey, I can’t get too angry. After all, Shakespeare’s words have stayed the same, and the acting, again, was all-around excellent. It’s a testament to these two factors that the entire audience left with smiles on their faces.