King Lear, Old Vic

Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage after more than two decades serving as an MP certainly should be a momentous occasion, and in one of the great roles. At age 80, in a time where audiences and theatremakers are clamouring for more diversity, Jackson as King Lear is an obvious choice. And she is remarkable – certainly one of the most nuanced Lears I have seen in a long time, and one that challenges the conventional portrayals of masculinity, old age and madness. The problem is the rest of the production. Deborah Warner’s nearly four hour-long royal unraveling often feels it – longer scenes lack energy and pace, and a vague, austere design concept puzzles rather than enlightens. There are some outstanding performances in the cast of 23, but some character choices fall in line with the overall blandness of this staging.

Jackson indicates she plays Lear as a man through her voice and movement, and the original gender references in the text are kept. Her Lear is a consistently powerful man as well with an unwavering masculinity, though it is not a modern maleness that she takes on. She endows him with a wide emotional spectrum, from laddishness through blind anger to debilitating grief. This spectrum, one not usually shown in contemporary male characters or modern cis men’s renditions of the great classical roles, potentially provides insight into masculine expression when Shakespeare was writing. Demonstrable emotion and the ability to verbally express these feelings may or may not have been commendable, but it wasn’t considered weak or not manly. This Lear is a renaissance man – skilled at language, war and emotional expression. Within his bouts of madness, he doesn’t seem completely incoherent – there are shadows of Hamlet’s feigned insanity here – and a deliberateness to his raging. His grief is heavy, but freely flows from a wellspring somewhere deep in the guts. There is no indication that Jackson hasn’t performed in years, and her level of commitment, truth and expression is a masterclass in performance.

Though Jackson’s performance is extraordinary, the design concept is sorely lacking in substance. Mostly white, with the occasional projection of static and scene numbers on otherwise blank panels, it looks low budget and makes no statement about time or place. It doesn’t feel timeless, just empty and featureless – a kingdom hardly worth fighting over. There are initial metatheatrical hints of a film or theatre set, but these quickly disappear. Whilst the set does emphasise the contemporary dress and Lear’s bright wardrobe, it otherwise draws attention to the sweeping depth of the stage that is mostly ignored. Warner keeps the action firmly on the apron, which isn’t a problem, but the rest of the stage feels wasted. The storm scene is a notable exception with it’s oily sky brewed with black plastic sheeting underneath flickering projections. It’s delightfully lo-fi and hugely effective.

There are other good performances, particularly Rhys Ifans’ fool, who shows a similar emotional range. As well as the usual jesting, it is evident that he cares deeply for the old man; he also has quite the vicious streak. Sargon Yelda is a devoted and blustery Kent, and Harry Melling’s Edgar is wonderfully bold, pitiful and desperate as Poor Tom.

Warner’s direction is the main issue with the production. The longer scenes in the first half lose energy quickly, and the staging is often static. Picking up the pace and trimming the script would be a vast improvement and draw less attention to the boring design. Some of the cast need more urgency and variation in their delivery, which would give the show an injection of energy.

Is it worth seeing this King Lear for Jackson’s performance? Absolutely. Her interpretation of the role is positively exquisite, but when she is not on stage, things are generally much less interesting. It will hopefully find its rhythm as the run goes on, but the clumsy slowness and lack of clear concept is most frustrating.

King Lear runs through 3 December.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.