We have performers at the top of their game, perfectly cast, with Shakespeare’s most nuanced tragedy to sink their teeth into. At the apex is Glenda Jackson with a career-defining King Lear.
The 79-year-old thespian turned politician has been vociferous about the ‘deeply deeply depressing’ dearth of female roles: ‘If you’re lucky and you’re talented as a man, you can go through every single male development stage. You can go all the way from … Hamlet to Lear... There is no equivalent for women,’ she told The Observer.
So Jackson takes ownership of this male part in a performance that’s refreshingly indifferent to gender. Her take on Lear is nothing to do with a woman playing a man; as soon as Jackson stands, back to the stage, and commands ‘his’ daughters to quantify their devotion, talent overtakes any preoccupation with gender.
It's an all-consuming, physical performance, as dominance gives way to vulnerability. The contrast between Jackson’s slight stature and booming voice is particularly poignant in the context of the king’s dwindling control and increasingly imperfect mind. In the subdued moments of reunion between a deranged, delirious old Lear and his youngest daughter, the production feels achingly modern: the delayed joy of recognition from the distressed old parent slumped in a wheelchair is unbearably touching.
In such quiet moments, where it is Shakespeare’s verse that makes us shudder with recognition, this King Lear is masterful. There’s lightness too with some infectious jesting from Rhys Ifans as the fool. Seething rivalry comes courtesy of Celia Imrie's sexually repressed Goneril and Jane Horrocks' rock chick Regan. A gleefully macabre taste for horror creeps in with the climactic plucking of Gloucester’s eye and .
The utilitarian staging and modern dress should cast all focus on the performance, but director Deborah Warner’s production has a tendency to drown language and plot with a forced hysteria. Towards the middle, in the chaos of addled minds, the abrasive force of shouted dialogue and storm sound effects dominates. The poetry of the enlightened madness and prescient riddles is lost in the white noise and the nightmarish tone is wearisome. This touch of melodrama slips into monologues too, with inflated hand gestures and overt the top theatricality.
While these overdone moments are frustratingly unnecessary, they are far from a fatal blow. The overall talent of the cast ensures that there's plenty of life in this Lear.
BOOK YOUR TICKETS NOW
|What||King Lear, Old Vic review|
The Old Vic
The Cut, London, SE1 8NB | MAP
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
25 Oct 16 – 03 Dec 16, 7:30 PM – 11:00 PM
|Price||£12 - £65|
|Website||Click here to book via Culture Whisper and See Tickets|