A DIFFERENT AND (ALMOST) GREAT LEAR…
This is, of course, “event theatre”. Glenda Jackson, aged 80 , after 25 years off the stagedourly battling as a Labour MP, returns to the boards not by taking the gentler slopes as Helena or Gertrude, but hurling herself at King Lear. So here’s a comeback, a veteran, a crossgendering, rash and eccentric and newsworthy. It is to Ms Jackson’s high honour that as it transpires the most notable thing is that she is tremendous. Archly parental at first, pompous and swaggering thrillingly terrifying in her rages and curses, a terror of the earth: shudderingly out-ranting the tempest, losing herself in pity and remorse, tender with her Fool, writhing in the madness of .disgust, finally “a foolish fond old man” and valiant in defeat. Really, a Lear to remember.
But unfortunately, one doomed to batter her way towards us through an irritatingly, exhaustingly overemphatic and gimmicky production. Deborah Warner gives us an acceptably bland modernist staging – white panels – which is fine, and a cracking storm made of giant sheets of bin-bag plastic and a wind machine. She makes use of a supermarket trolley for Poor Tom and a number of trestle tables and plastic chairs (Lear threatens Kent with one in the first scene, an unusual yet rather pleasing weaponisation of cheap school-hall furniture). All, as I say, fine. We don’t need ruffs and tights.
The irritating bit, a the production stamps and shouts its head off around Jackson’s undimmed and perfectly controlled power, is the director’s detemination to stomp home every point. She makes her cast treat the text (mainly honoured, and running to a gruelling three and three quarter hours) as if it was modern, jerkily emphatic vernacular. Some overcome this: Sargon Yelda’s Kent is fine, though hampered by having to use a comedy pan-Slavic accent in his impersonation, Celia Imrie is a clear, mischievous Goneril, Karl Johnson a moving, strong (and traditional) Gloucester. And Harry Melling, ever more of a rising star to watch, is a memorable Edgar, both in dignity and feigned madness. He’ll be a Hamlet soon.
But perhaps due to a modish dread of the Victorian “stand still and shout” tradition, few of the cast are ever allowed to utter a line without unnerving gymnastics. Edmund’s revelatory first , important, speech planning treachery and dedicating himself to raw nature is conducted by Simon Manyonda skipping like a boxer, doing pressups , burpees and side stretches as he speaks, then rounding it off by dropping his shorts for a spirited wank (back view only, small mercies). Cordelia at one stage seems to be allaying her anxieties with a stretch ’n squat routine , Jane Horrocks’ Regan strides around ceaselessly in spray-on Levis and killer heels, and Kent mystifyingly goes through a complete change of tracksuit and socks during another key narrative speech. Understandable that the Fool (Rhys Ifans in a tattered Superman outfit) should mug and lark and skip around, but he actually has more presence and interest in a rare moment when he stands still and delivers his last song in the style of Bob Dylan.
There are sharp bits of staging and interpretation; the blinding of Gloucester is most explicit in shadow-play against the white screen, though the supposed eye itself is thrown at us (Row L, stage right, watch it). But all through, as if the director didn’t trust Shakespeare an inch, there is just too much physical disturbance. It ironically detracts from the great emotional disturbance of the play itself.
Still, the text burns through: the immense chiming wisdoms and griefs of the end bite hard enough to compensate for a uniquely messy shambles of scenes, leading up to a stage cluttered with corpses dragged around on blankets until the dead Goneril and Reagan (and quite possible Edmund, I lost count) distractingly surround the tableau of Lear and dead Cordelia.
Which, of course, Jackson again delivers with an intense and ancient power. It could have been one of the great Lears, and its star certainly is. But not the frame she shines in.
box office 0844 8717628 http://www.oldvictheatre.com to 3 Dec
principal partner Royal Bank of Canada