My brunch with Glenda Jackson: A critic goes another round with Broadway’s King Lear
That was my initial reaction when a publicist asked if I’d like to interview Glenda Jackson to discuss her performance in the new Broadway production of “King Lear.”
Our previous encounter didn’t go according to script. Last year, when she was starring in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” on Broadway, I had excitedly made my way to meet her at a tea house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side only to take to bed for the rest of the day once I managed to scrape myself off the floor after the interview was done.
In my long career, I’ve braved Elaine Stritch’s rasp, Edward Albee’s dry precision, Susan Sontag’s intellectual hauteur, Dame Edna’s lightning ripostes and Stephen Sondheim’s demigod status. I have sometimes felt wobbly after an interview, but not until my hour with Jackson had I felt the need to be medevacked to safety.
Of course, being the professional that I am, I agreed to a second meeting with her ferocious eminence. (Please don’t underestimate the toughness of drama critics — or their capacity for masochism.) The scheduled time, noon on Sunday at a diner on Second Avenue, precluded a glass of wine beforehand. I was, to borrow a line from Stritch, going out there alone.
With pathetic fallacy worthy of Shakespeare, rain and wind lashed the island of Manhattan as I clutched my voice recorder from the back seat of my taxi heading uptown. I arrived early, ordered coffee and was soon greeted by Jackson, who had braved the elements by foot and was looking almost as bedraggled as Lear in the storm scene.
It took her no time to regain her regal authority. But I was struck by the contrast of this crumpled 82-year-old in a slicker and the Tony- and Oscar-winning titan capable of seizing a vast audience by the back of its neck with the fire of her elocution and the fury of her personality.
Let me cut to the chase: Jackson was her astringent, snappish self. She banged on the table. She lambasted me for ruining my questions by “always” asking whether she “liked” this or was “happy” about that. (“What does happiness have to do with it? It’s work. It’s not a hobby or a game.”) But she was unfailingly civil even when our conversation hit the occasional speed bump.
The consummate old-school theater professional, she had consented to do press on her day off in a week that had her in technical rehearsals during the day and in preview performances at night. Her life at the moment was Lear and nothing but Lear. The role, which she performed in a different production at London’s Old Vic in 2016, is what occasioned her return to the stage after a 23-year detour into politics as a Labour Party MP.
Given our history and the decisive way she ordered coffee with cold milk, I thought it best to start gingerly. Curious about her approach to tackling Lear again, I asked whether she was incorporating what she had done in London or starting anew?
“It’s totally different, but the play stays the same,” she replied with her usual laconic efficiency. “If you manage to dig out the energy of the play, it’s a remarkable experience.”
Convinced the whole “gender-bender” thing is overblown, she reiterated an insight she shared during our previous interview: “The older we get, the absolute boundaries that constitute gender begin to fray.” She’s playing King Lear as written, a royal patriarch accustomed to getting his way. Nothing more to be said.
Jackson wasn’t much more expansive on the subject of American actors and Shakespeare: “They all come to it saying they don’t know how to do this, but they do.” Reversing out of these conversational dead ends, I asked if she’s made any surprising discoveries about her character this time around.
“You’re working with different people, so there are characterizations that are different,” she said. “This obviously reflects on your characterization. In Shakespeare, you always learn more about the character you’re playing from what the other characters say about you, and so that is very intriguing and interesting.”
When we talked last, she lamented the dearth of roles for women. “Three Tall Women,” for which she won a Tony Award last year, was a rare pleasure in her career. Recalling how enthusiastic she was to be sharing a bill with Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, I asked how she liked working with Metcalf. I thought it was an innocent question, but Jackson seemed nettled.
“It doesn’t matter whether you like or dislike people,” she said. “It’s the work that happens.” Pausing to consider how this might sound, she added: “But I do, as it happens, personally like her. She’s what I call a proper actress. But the personal frame is of no consequence.”
In “King Lear,” Jackson finds herself — contentedly — at the center of a throng of powerhouse actresses, among them Jayne Houdyshell as Gloucester, Ruth Wilson as Cordelia and the Fool, Elizabeth Marvel as Goneril, and Aisling O’Sullivan as Regan. “You’re usually the only one, if you’re the woman cast, so to have actresses of this caliber to work with is a great privilege,” she said.
Moving on to what I suspected might be more controversial territory, I delicately inquired about her collaboration with director Sam Gold. I hadn’t yet seen his production, but I knew from past experiences of his work that he wasn’t going to deliver a conventional “King Lear.” Now that I’ve experienced the stylistic farrago, I can only imagine the backstage power struggles.
“I can’t take one person out of the group, if you see what I mean,” she answered with evasive diplomacy. “I’m a firm believer that everyone in the play is responsible for the play, large or small part. And this is very much the sense of this company, which is excellent.”
I reminded her that she had described Deborah Warner’s production of “King Lear” at the Old Vic to me as “fashionable.” The word, bathed in acid when it tripped off her tongue, didn’t strike me as a compliment.
“It wasn’t that,” Jackson objected. “It was that she was the first director I ever worked with who didn’t allow you into the rehearsal room if you weren’t in the scene. I found that very curious.”
“Sam Gold has a real auteur style,” I said.
“Which director doesn’t?”
“He can be pretty out there in his choices.”
“All directors have their own approach to the work they’re doing,” she replied. “You have to go along with it — up to a point. Anyway, as with all productions, it’s when you’re playing it, when you have an audience, that you really know how it’s going — and the director ain’t there!”
“Have you had many fights with Sam?” I pressed.
“I wouldn’t say many, but serious disagreements.”
“What were the outcomes of those disagreements?”
“They’re still ongoing.”
“Disagreements concerning your character?”
“Concerning the play.”
At that moment a child from another table toddled over to ours and Jackson made brief grandmotherly conversation with the girl. When we resumed, the conversation turned to a different auteur.
“I went to drama school, but the transformative work in my professional life was working with Peter Brook,” she said, dropping an f-bomb to underscore her great luck. What distinguishes his direction? “He starts always from the premise — is there a production to be found?” she said approvingly. “He doesn’t come with a little book telling you how to do things. You have to find it.”
When asked about the Lears that have impressed her most, she named only one: Paul Scofield in Brook’s landmark 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company production. “Everything he did, he just stood out,” she said rapturously. “He was just the most marvelous actor.”
Scofield was only 40 when he triumphed as Lear. Which made me wonder whether there’s an ideal age range for an actor to play the part.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied, tucking into her omelet.
“But there is the question of stamina, is there not?” I pursued. Lear may be “four score and upward,” but not every octogenarian wants to be put through the paces of this monumental tragedy.
“I find all that ludicrous,” she said. “Every part is a demanding part. And that’s what you should be grateful for when you see how much rubbish people have to do. To be in a play of this quality — thank your lucky stars!”
She hadn’t seen Ian McKellen’s Lear in the West End or Anthony Hopkins’ Lear on TV, to name two more recent examples I asked about. She said she doesn’t get out to the theater much in London, “because public transportation isn’t what it ought to be” and she’s often on “grandmother patrol.”
Does her grandson, by any chance, have the acting bug?
“Yes, he does.”
“Have you encouraged that?”
“Absolutely not. I discourage it as much as humanly possible.”
“Why is that?”
“Overcrowded, under-served, terrible life.”
“Is it a terrible life? Even with all the fame you’ve achieved?”
“But that’s for how many? And what does it mean. It doesn’t mean anything. Well it does, because it means that you’re considered for employment. But it’s a hard life.”
“Still, it must have been satisfying to be honored with the Tony Award last year?”
“But what does it mean?” she asked again. “You don’t compete with other people.” In an almost mocking tone, she added, “It’s very nice. Doesn’t make you any better.”
Jackson had recently made headlines for defending Prime Minister Theresa May. Her son, a British newspaper columnist with more conservative political leanings, informed her that “it’s gone mad on Twitter.” Does she stand by her remarks?
“Absolutely,” she said without a scintilla of hesitation. “I just think the way she’s been treated is absolutely disgraceful, not only by her own party in Parliament but by the British press. There she is slogging away in a country that is split right down the middle over whether we should or shouldn’t be in Europe.”
Sounding at times like a Shakespearean monarch in Act IV of a tragedy, she let out a sigh of disgust at the politicians who manipulated the public into this Brexit debacle.
“The fallacious argument was that the free movement of people, one of the four planks of membership in the European Union, means our kids can’t get homes, our children can’t go to the schools, the NHS [National Health Service] is being overworked,” she said, in a voice that could once again commandeer the floor of Parliament. “Every one of those areas of national life is the exclusive responsibility of the government of the day, regardless of party. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the European Union. The majority of people who came to work in my country were young, healthy and have no children. But there you go. Human nature doesn’t change.”
When I made comparisons with President Trump’s border wall, she politely resisted the impulse to editorialize: “Well, yes, but I’m a guest in this country, so I’ll forgo that.” But with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger, she acknowledged that these political times are “utterly crazy.”
“When will we ever learn?” she asked with a faraway look. “Poland and Hungary elected extreme right-wing governments. Poland and Hungary! We don’t learn, do we?”
Does “King Lear” have anything to say about this failure? I asked. “Shakespeare is the most contemporary dramatist around,” she replied. “He only ever writes about human nature, and human nature is immutable. The human condition can be improved, but human nature stays the same.”
Jackson doesn’t think of “King Lear” as a political play. (“Shakespeare knew well enough to steer clear of politics,” she said.) But what about the patriarchal politics? Is there a critique being made?
“A play that was originally performed with no women actors in it and you ask me about the patriarchal nature of the play?” she stormed. “It’s the patriarchal nature of the times, even though Elizabeth I had been the most powerful person in Europe and certainly the most powerful person in England. But she had to be — what’s the word? — she just delayed everything.” (Jackson, who won a pair of Emmys for playing Queen Elizabeth, spoke with complete authority.)
Shakespeare is the most contemporary dramatist around. He only ever writes about human nature, and human nature is immutable.
Jackson doesn’t think Goneril and Regan are “naturally evil.” Indeed, she expressed sympathy with their dilemma of having to accommodate their father and his train of riotous knights.
“He’s given them the country,” she explained. “They’re the queens. Their husbands are the kings. In the time of Elizabeth, she would tour the country to show herself off to the people. And wherever she was going, she would stay with the local earl or duke. Those guys would be bankrupt having to entertain her. Bankrupt!”
It was strange to hear the person playing Lear take the side of his flattering, willful and ultimately depraved daughters. Jackson understands his wrath. (“He’s a man no one has ever said no to in his entire life!”) But she said she’s still puzzled by the way he divides the kingdom at the start of the play.
“Saying to the girls, just like that, tell me which of you loves me most and I’ll give you the biggest piece of the country,” she said. “Why does he do that? But they go on to say that he’s always been like that. He’s always done crazy things.”
Jackson doesn’t worry about establishing a sympathetic relationship with her character any more than she frets over whether she likes her fellow company members — or the theater critic pestering her with endless questions on her day off. She takes a proletarian pride in doing her job. Acting is work. And work entails a degree of hardship.
“I mean, good God,” she exclaimed. “Look what the play contains.”
Jackson’s manner may be brusque, but fellow feeling creeps in. Before we parted, she inquired where I was off to. I told her I would be visiting another Lear, my father, on his 80th birthday. She smiled a knowing, compassionate smile, and wished us both well.
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