Glenda Jackson is King Lear! Two-time Oscar winning actress turned politician returns to the stage after 25 years to play King Lear. However, the worrying feeling is that maybe the rest wasn’t so well thought out.
In a nutshell King Lear is to split his kingdom between his three daughters, the parts will be divided up based on how much they love their father. Goneril and Regan (Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks) dutifully tell their father how much they dote on him. Cordelia (Morfydd Clarke) perhaps a little out of her depth, refuses to put her father’s love into words. Lear rages, Cordelia is banished and so his heartache begins. With their little sister gone, Regan and Goneril plot to get rid of Lear, and he eventually flees into the ‘heath’ followed dutifully by his Fool (Rhys Ifans) and the disguised (also previously banished) loyal Kent (Sargon Yelda). Elsewhere in the kingdom an elderly nobleman Gloucester (Karl Johnson) is also having family trouble as bastard son, Edmund (Simon Manyonda), plots against his legitimate brother, Edgar, and his father. Edgar (Harry Melling) is forced to flee into the heath as ‘Mad Tom’ where he meets Lear.
It is very exciting to be treated to a more flawed Lear than usual. Jackson’s Lear is belligerent, rude and very much ‘once’ a great man – it brings a real sympathy to Goneril and Regan. You get the impression here that they aren’t always villains, they are daughters mistreated by their father and the choices they make, although cold and murderous, based on years of abuse. A very refreshing change to the usual portrayal of the ‘ugly sisters’ hell bent on power, wealth and more power. Here we get to watch that transformation happen as the carrot of potential liberation is dangled before them. Celia Imrie’s Goneril is tremendous, she sees her opportunity to strike and does so and is never fully in control hereafter, as she tries desperately to cling on by making one bad decision after another. We witness as her allies slowly turn against her. Her final moments are very touching, as she reminds us that it’s not just Lear who loses everything. Similarly in the counter story Gloucester, an excellent portrayal by Karl Johnson, hammers home just how little he thinks of his bastard son Edmund in his first scene. Indeed the words have always been there, but here it’s played with absolute sympathy and affection towards Edmund. Had Edmund been the hero in King Lear we would all be citing this moment as the beginning of his coming. However, when his need for family equality turns into world domination, our sympathy starts to wain. It sets ups the bastard speech perfectly. Manyonda's Edmund is in training, literally, he skips and press-up’s, jumps and does yoga and he has been planning this moment for quite some time. It is beautifully juxtaposed when beer swilling Edgar (a potentially show-stealing turn from Harry Melling) shows just how little effort it takes to ‘earn’ his father’s love.
Jackson as Lear is truly brilliant. She scythes through the text with absolute ease and is at once utterly powerful and incredibly frail. She has a wonderful sense of self-awareness that even though Lear is going mad, she is not all the way gone yet. Her dealings with Mad Tom and later Gloucester show that although she may be spouting gibberish she is still there behind the eyes.
The problem with this minimalistic modern-dress production by Deborah Warner (her third time directing the piece) is as though there’s no support for the actors where the staging is concerned. They are left with far too much work to do. It’s hard to place the blame at the feet of the actors as for the most part their storytelling, and their grasp of the text is terrific. My guest for the evening had never seen King Lear before and left angry at the lack of narrative structure. Important, crucial questions like ‘where are we?’ and ‘why are we here?’ go unanswered and it bleeds into the performances as not everyone is on the same page.
There is a 20 minute pre-show in which the performers and the technicians ‘set-up’ the stage, sweeping, moping and building it. The set (designed by Warner herself with co-designer Jean Kalman who’s also In charge of the lighting) is a white box and several blue ‘school’ chairs with the projection of act and scene numbers. So we’re on set? Are we in the rehearsal room? And then nothing really changes. It’s left for the actors to sort of fend for themselves, and in this case, some thrive, others sink.