Two major productions of “King Lear” are taking place on opposite sides of the River Thames, but for London audiences this embarrassment of Shakespearean riches is as normal as autumn’s gunmetal skies.
What is noteworthy is that Glenda Jackson, two-time Oscar-winner and long-serving member of Parliament, has returned to the stage at the age of 80 to perform the title role in the Old Vic production directed by Deborah Warner. “Hamilton” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” may still be the global theatrical sensations of the moment, but Jackson’s return to acting after more than two decades in politics has seized the attention of the theater world.
All eyes would otherwise be on Antony Sher, who is essaying this most daunting of tragic roles in the Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Barbican directed by Gregory Doran. In the spring, Sher revealed his Falstaff to audiences at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and cemented his status as one of the most accomplished Shakespearean players alive today. I certainly wasn’t alone in thinking that in an era that has brought us so many famous Lears (Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Simon Russell Beale, Frank Langella, John Lithgow), Sher’s might be the greatest of them all.
These two new mountings of “Lear” could hardly be more different. Warner’s staging is vigorously modern in its costumes, characterizations and Brechtian effects calling attention to the artifice of theater. Doran’s production flirts with Beckettian starkness amid all the Jacobean brutality but is more traditionally focused on Shakespeare’s language.
Both revivals are dominated by their stars and both have some trouble integrating their marquee Lears with the rest of their productions. Neither represents a landmark of 21st century Shakespearean stagecraft, but taken together they illuminate what makes this fearsome tragedy so difficult to tame on stage.
Warner, who directed Fiona Shaw as Richard II in a bracing take on Shakespeare’s history play, brings a fluid intelligence to the handling of gender here. The play’s pronouns aren’t altered — it’s still King Lear, not Queen Lear. Jackson’s look is handsomely androgynous. She has a flattering unisex haircut and dons a red vest that is exchanged for a softer, less militaristic red cardigan after Lear’s royal prerogative shatters.
The production begins with actors milling about the stage in preparation for the performance. Blue plastic chairs, of the kind you might expect to see in a modish European rehearsal room, are arranged on a mostly barren set. Act and scene numbers are projected overhead.
The contemporary informality is broken when Jackson’s Lear makes a regal entrance. There’s nothing about the characterization that is at odds with the staging, but the ferocity of Jackson’s presence changes the production’s barometric pressure.
Critics have commented that there is no rust on Jackson’s acting. Parliament, where Jackson has laced mercilessly into Conservative opponents, has kept her oratorical skills sharp. But there is an overcompensating boldness in her opening scenes that muddles the inner trajectory of her character.
Jackson has a habit of italicizing in rage a single word that makes Lear’s anger more rhetorical than believable. It wasn’t until the line, “O, let me not be mad” late in the first act that I believed a word of what Jackson’s Lear was saying.
This isn’t to say that Jackson isn’t fiercely enthralling in her opening moments. But it wasn’t clear to me whether Warner wanted us to be super-conscious of the performance of Lear’s fury or the experience of it. And if the aim were a Brechtian alienation separating the player from the part, how was the production planning to keep us engaged through the long journey of torment? Lear’s chief occupation, after all, is suffering, and pity motors the audience as much as terror through the painful marathon.
Fortunately, Jackson’s portrayal grows in power as Lear’s egotistical indignation turns to sorrowful contemplation. The political commitments of Jackson as Labor Party stalwart resound in Lear’s anguished regret, “O, I have ta’en/Too little care of this!” — the line from the storm scene in which Lear feels kinship with the poor, homeless wretches who also have no place to shelter.
Occasionally the production’s modernizing of characters seems willful. Celia Imrie’s Goneril and Jane Horrocks’ Regan, brash updates of Lear’s dastardly daughters, could be mean comic foils in an “Absolutely Fabulous” movie. The directorial daring intermittently pays off with Rhys Ifans’ Fool dressed as a lunatic Superman. And a piercing modern clarity is attained when Karl Johnson’s Gloucester totters across the stage with a walker, a bandage across his eyes and a disposable plastic rain poncho.
The staging is too erratic, however, to maximize the tragedy’s emotional wallop. Jackson gives novel spin to Lear’s resonantly irrational remarks to Johnson’s Gloucester in their apocalyptic Act 4 encounter, but there’s more rhetoric than realism in the old king’s “reason in madness.” Jackson is more moving in her reunion and final moments with Morfydd Clark’s Cordelia, but the strenuous pungency of Warner’s hectic production drowns out the tenderness. This savage Lear becomes pathetic without ever truly being heartbreaking.
It is much easier to tune into the text of the RSC’s “Lear,” which will be shown in December at select Los Angeles cinemas (visit www.rsc.org.uk/king-lear/in-cinemas/ for details). But the production seems at loggerheads with itself.
Sher delivers an eloquent performance in which words are caressed, sentences are elucidated, and the art of elocution is grandly paraded. His approach is a touch bombastic, to be completely frank, but the verbal clarity is impressive. Sher’s acting is almost a form of reading — he comprehends the role, syllable by slow syllable, for the audience.
Doran honors Sher’s Lear by kitting him out as a kind of hunting deity, blanketed in fur and bedecked with gold plates. The king is clearly the sun around which this production revolves, but the staging seems to want to go in a less barnstorming direction.
Doran places Lear in a glass box in the opening scene, sets the horrific blinding of Gloucester (David Troughton) in a translucent torture booth made all the more horrific by fluorescent lighting and scenically evokes “Waiting for Godot” in Lear and Gloucester’s harrowing Act 4 exchange. Increasingly, the production begins to resemble a standoff between Sir Henry Irving, the Victorian-era actor-manager, and the auteur world of Peter Brook.
There’s a wonderful moment in the storm scene when acting and direction fall perfectly into sync. Sher’s Lear, catechizing at the sight of Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar disguised as Poor Tom, declares that “unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal” as Johnstone contorts his body poignantly into a physical illustration of the poetry.
Such moments, unfortunately, are few and far between. Having been so delighted by Sher’s Falstaff, I was surprised by how little sympathy I was feeling toward his Lear. Falstaff’s intricate wit is perhaps better suited to the kind of textual explication Sher specializes in. Lear requires more ruminative silence as the aging monarch is forced to confront the helpless man too long hidden by opulent finery. Sher’s inwardness is blocked by a wall of sublimely enunciated words.
“King Lear” is both play and poem, and negotiating the shifts between movement and meditation is perhaps the great challenge in staging this monumental tragedy. It is a work that depends on the prodigious verbal and emotional resources of an actor who is every inch a star. And yet it requires a performer who can be subsumed in a production guided by a director who knows that the theatrical whole must be greater than its most spectacular part.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty