Well one thing’s for certain, Glenda Jackson certainly has balls. To make a come back to the theatrical stage from the one in Westminster, is a brave feat for any actor, let alone one who is eighty years young. That the role in question is the mighty King Lear adds to this lady’s pluck. And it’s not just pluck, because on stage at The Old Vic she also proves that she is still the fine actress she was twenty-five years ago. But the main question is, will she go down as one of the great Lears? Probably not, but to be fair, this is actually more down to Deborah Warner’s production rather than Ms Jackson’s performance.
The director has set the play in a modern day rehearsal room with a minimalist set designed by herself and Jean Kalman that comprises a succession of white cubes and squares. The lighting is stark and plain and does nothing to hide the gaunt features of this octogenarian female Lear. Jackson is allowed no vanity, for we witness every line and sinew, especially when, at full throttle, she brings out the king’s malice and desire for revenge. Her recognizable, rasping voice is undiminished and that she is a woman playing a man (she hasn’t been re-named Queen Lear) is not an issue. No, the issue, for me, is that I was strangely unmoved by the whole thing.
The production lacks atmosphere, apart from the magnificent storm scene, realised with billowing black plastic and lightening streaks of silver light. There are also a few unnecessary distractions. Not only are we “treated” to a lingering full frontal Edgar (Harry Melling), but his sibling, Edmund (Simon Manyonda) bares his buttocks following a skipping-rope work-out. All very fine (their bodies aren’t unpleasing to the eye) but one gets the feeling the director feels the need to shock. That we are also treated to not one but two characters tossing themselves off and one of Gloucester’s eyeballs is lobbed into the audience, is, I feel several gimmicks too far.
Some of the remaining performances are also a bit hit and miss. Jane Horrocks is a dominatrix type Regan, clad in spindly stilettos and tight black jeans, but, peculiarly her and be-suited Celia Imrie as Goneril are somewhat underpowered. This is a particular shame for me, as their inclusion, alongside Jackson and Rhys Ifans were a factor in my booking tickets. Mind you, Rhys Ifans’s Fool does not disappoint. Resplendent in Superman costume, he brings a welcome warmth to the Old Vic stage and is undeniably funny. Also worthy of a mention are Morfydd Clark as a quietly effective Cordelia and Sargon Yelda as Kent. They bring clarity to the text, unlike Harry Melling and Simon Manyonda, who whether through overexertion or distraction from dangling private parts tend to lose or throw away key speeches.
Despite the negatives, seeing Glenda Jackson on stage once more, doing what she does best, is well worth the ticket price.