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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Glenda Jackson battles through a brazenly busy ‘King Lear’ on Broadway

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Ruth Wilson, left, and Glenda Jackson in “King Lear,” directed by Sam Gold at Broadway’s Cort Theatre.
(Brigitte Lacombe )
Theater Critic

For his Broadway production of “King Lear,” built around the one and only Glenda Jackson, director Sam Gold has decided to make use of every luxurious resource at his disposal — sometimes simultaneously.

A more hectic palette would be hard to imagine for Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy without the addition of a fire truck siren. Gold doesn’t need to call the fire department. He has Philip Glass, who has composed original music performed by a string quartet tucked away in a corner of the gilt casino-resort palace that is Miriam Buether’s set.

Shakespeare’s language doesn’t require cinematic underscoring. “King Lear” provides its own accompaniment, but this verbal music is often drowned out by the musicians sawing away in the background.

Gold directed a lavishly praised “Othello” at New York Theatre Workshop with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig that was bracing to look at and frustrating to listen to. A “Hamlet” at the Public Theater starring Oscar Isaac was emotionally powerful in a circumscribed way that ditched politics for Freudian frenzy.

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“King Lear,” which had its official opening on Thursday at the Cort Theatre, incorporates a number of Gold’s auteur touches. There’s the casting of non-classical actors with distinctive contemporary lineaments alongside practiced Shakespeareans; the creation of a pastiche time period that’s recognizably modern in its mood and mores; and the cavalier tweaking of plot points through a rambunctious staging that has the characters packing guns and copulating on the floor.

The production flows with confidence and is never for a moment dull. But if this revival represents a step forward for Gold’s career, it is a step backward for Shakespeare’s play, which has lost much of its excruciating pathos in the directorial hubbub.

Jackson, whose career took a 23-year swerve into parliamentary politics, made her return to the stage in a different production of “King Lear” at London’s Old Vic in 2016. She is not reprising that performance, though it’s still King Lear (not Queen Lear) whom she’s portraying. Broadway theatergoers who caught her Tony-winning performance last year in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” will certainly recognize the vituperative dazzle.

Making her entrance in a tuxedo with a smart boyish haircut, Jackson’s Lear roars with authority and rebuke. The imperious manner resounds in the way Jackson theatrically rolls her Rs. Her Lear clearly relishes the pomp and circumstance — that is, until a recalcitrant Cordelia throws a monkey wrench in the ceremonial plans.

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Much of Jackson’s performance takes place on the elocutionary level. She doesn’t so much speak her lines as seethe them. Vowels are stretched for whooshing emphasis; consonants are crashed upon with the force of a speeding car against a highway divider.

The diction is so pyrotechnical that it may come as a surprise to learn that Jackson’s Lear is more personalized this time around, more human. In London, she was a stylized archetype waging war against the gods. Here, she’s a declining father whose dictatorial temperament is making for a rough ending. Unfortunately, the production and her performance often seem at loggerheads.

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Jayne Houdyshell and Sean Carvajal in Sam Gold’s production of “King Lear” at the Cort Theatre.
(Brigitte Lacombe)

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Jackson tunes out the more boisterous antics of Gold’s staging while doing her best to tune into her fellow cast members. The production has an especially potent roster of actresses in male and female roles, including Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell as Earl of Gloucester, Lear’s parallel paterfamilias, whose egotistical rashness similarly paves the way for a crash course in suffering.

Ruth Wilson (“Constellations” on Broadway, Showtime’s “The Affair”) plays both Cordelia and the Fool, the characters closest to the king’s irascible heart. The jester’s role extracts more original color from this vibrant English actress. Wilson’s Cordelia gloomily follows her conscience in not vomiting up her filial affection on command while her Fool is an affectionate smartass who can’t take a bite of a carrot without first turning it into a phallic gag.

Elizabeth Marvel, grand veteran of Ivo van Hove deconstructions, gives us an increasingly debauched Goneril while the electric Irish actress Aisling O’Sullivan portrays a brooding Regan pinched with resentment. These daughters will say or do anything for a greater chunk of their father’s kingdom, but Gold’s production curiously takes their side in the early family squabbles.

The rich ambiguity in Shakespeare’s plays makes it possible to read against the interpretive grain. The psychology is usually both/and rather than either/or. But in stressing the legitimate grievances Goneril and Regan have toward their wrathful, capricious father, the production underplays what Cordelia knows about her sisters’ natures long before they reveal the full extent of their depravity.

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Goneril and Regan may not start off as melodramatic villains, but Gold makes it seem as if Lear’s demand to retain his train of riotous knights despite the bankrupting cost is what turns them into such marble-hearted fiends. As a result, when Lear describes himself as “a man more sinned against than sinning,” these words represent not the dawning of tragic awareness in a complicated protagonist but more self-pity from a cranky old narcissist.

While it is undeniable that Lear acts abominably, the loyalty that is shown to him by Kent (a golden-voiced John Douglas Thompson), despite being banished in a royal tantrum, is a testament to what is worthy in the character of protection. Lear challenges sympathetic identification. But if you don’t care about him, as the noblest characters do, the play itself becomes an ordeal.

That’s not the case with this tantalizing production. But the laughter in the audience, a steady stream of sitcom tittering, is a sign that something is amiss in the way the tragic path has been worked out.

If this revival represents a step forward for director Sam Gold’s career, it is a step backward for Shakespeare’s play.

Jackson’s performance is thunderous in sorrow as well as in indignation. A look of acute regret passes on Lear’s face when he considers the way he has conducted his life. Deeper connections, however, are blocked by the busyness of the staging. Jackson’s Lear movingly bears witness to the mercilessness of old age. But the play’s metaphysical sweep — the collective tragedy of our frail and fallible condition — is missing.

Recent productions of “King Lear” have been stylistic grab bags. Perhaps there’s no other way to reconcile modern and Jacobean traditions, but shouldn’t directors aim to coalesce their visions? Gold, who deservedly won a Tony for his direction of the musical “Fun Home,” doesn’t seem to mind the babel of accents or the hodgepodge of acting approaches.

As Edgar, Sean Carvajal, celebrated for his performance in the Signature Theatre revival of “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” hammers away with the emotional insistence of a character in a Stephen Adly Guirgis play. Pedro Pascal smiles diabolically as Edmund but has trouble finding the character’s twisted charisma that has sexually ensnared Goneril and Regan.

Gold’s commitment to inclusive casting extends to actors with disabilities. In his “Othello,” an actor playing a soldier (Michael Lopez) removed and reattached his prosthetic leg. In Gold’s Broadway production of “The Glass Menagerie,” the actress playing Laura (Madison Ferris) relied on a wheelchair.

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In “King Lear,” Russell Harvard, who was in Deaf West Theatre’s sensational revival of “Spring Awakening,” communicates largely through sign language as a kilt-wearing Duke of Cornwall. Michael Arden (the director of that “Spring Awakening” production) serves as Cornwall’s interpretive aide and has a key role in the infamous eye-gouging scene that is staged here with a twist.

Even relatively minor characters have been given a novel update. As Oswald, Goneril’s criminally faithful steward, Matthew Maher, an Obie-winning actor of indissoluble originality, is dressed like a concierge at a Scottsdale resort. In the role of the more consequential Duke of Albany, Dion Johnstone is almost alarming in his straightforward normality.

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There’s an awful lot to take in, including all that Glass music (which at last finds a purpose in the storm scene). It was satisfying to see amid the wreckage of Buether’s set, a casualty of the spiraling violence, the cracked ceramic animals that figured with tacky prominence in the first act. But I was surprised that Gold and his accomplished set designer resorted to such a trite trope. Didn’t the characters in Lyndsey Turner’s 2015 production of “Hamlet” with Benedict Cumberbatch at London’s Barbican have to pick their way across an Elsinore castle similarly reduced to rubble? It’s time for a fresh scenic coup, auteurs.

Havoc reigns in “King Lear,” but as the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello once noted there’s a difference between depicting chaos and depicting chaotically. Gold doesn’t always observe the difference, though there’s a moment of powerful stillness late in the production when all that happens is a harrowing act of listening.

Houdyshell’s Gloucester, whose empty eye sockets are covered in a bloody bandage, has been left alone to await the outcome of the war that is underway between Cordelia’s forces and those of her malign sisters. The sound of distant explosions will determine the fate of the king and all who still love him. But the duke, who has already suffered so much, can only listen with the solemn impassivity of someone who has outlived his life.

Jackson’s Lear, made of more ferocious mettle, wails to the bitter end. No one in my experience has ever done a better job of handling the repetition of the word “never” as Lear struggles to comprehend the permanence of Cordelia’s death. It’s a shattering ending, yet my eyes were dry.

Did virtuosity overpower emotion? No matter. The audience leaped to acknowledge a triumphant Jackson. But to borrow a line from Kent, the wonder is that she hath endured Gold’s production so long.

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