A Star Braves The Winds On the Heath
by Ben Brantley New York Times 4/5/2019
Could we please have a little quiet? There's a great actress onstage at the Cort Theater, and I'd like to hear what she's saying.
That was the way I felt during much of Sam Gold's production of "King Lear," which opened on Thursday night with the extraordinary Glenda Jackson in the title role. It should surprise no one that Ms. Jackson is delivering a powerful and deeply perceptive performance as the most royally demented of Shakespeare's monarchs.
But much of what surrounds her in this glittery, haphazard production seems to be working overtime to divert attention from that performance. That includes a perfectly lovely string quartet -- playing original music by Philip Glass, no less -- that under other circumstances I would have enjoyed listening to.
Here, though, this intermittent concert seems to be competing with, rather than underscoring, Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy. The same might be said of Miriam Buether's blindingly gold set (lighted to sear the eyes by Jane Cox), which blazes with nouveau riche vulgarity.
Perhaps we are meant to think of the gilded surfaces of Trump pleasure domes, though I'm not sure that's the intention. To be honest, I'm not sure of a lot of the intentions behind the choices here.
That includes those of many of the supporting players, who include the formidable likes of Ruth Wilson, Elizabeth Marvel, Jayne Houdyshell and John Douglas Thompson. By and large, the performances seem to have been blown into uneasy coexistence by random winds from different directions.
Yet there, amid the chaos, is Ms. Jackson, like a sharp and gleaming scythe slashing through an overgrown field. Lear may be one of world literature's most disturbingly lost souls. But Ms. Jackson hews to his tortured path with such insight that we register every twisting contour in a dispossessed monarch's road into madness and redemption. That is, when the view of him isn't obstructed by the garish obstacle course that has been assembled for him to run.
This is the role with which Ms. Jackson, a two-time Oscar winner, returned to the stage to hosannas -- at London's Old Vic in 2016 -- after 23 years as a member of the British Parliament. Continuing what is sure to remain one of the most remarkable second -- or is it third? -- acts in show business, Ms. Jackson proceeded to Broadway in 2018 to appear not as Lear, but as the aged, bitter, death-denying central figure of Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women."
She deservedly won the 2018 Tony Award for best actress for that performance. Now, at last, New York has the chance to see her Lear, albeit in a different production, and it is a carefully faceted jewel.
The surprise here isn't that a woman is playing a man, which quickly comes to seem irrelevant. What's more unexpected is the subtlety with which this natural powerhouse shades her character from the start.
Unlike most Lears, Ms. Jackson doesn't begin in full, imperious spleen. When we first meet him, he's a tyrant who doesn't have to raise his voice because he assumes his every wish is everybody else's command. Unquestioning obedience from those who orbit him is the central fact of his life.
When he exiles his youngest, best-loved daughter, Cordelia (a sullen Ms. Wilson) because she isn't sufficiently effusive in her praise of him, it feels like a petulant, conditioned reflex, the caprice of a moment that he might later reverse.
Except, of course, he's renounced his power, dividing his kingdom among his sycophantic older daughters, Goneril and Regan (Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O'Sullivan, whose accents suggest they grew up in very different parts of the world).
From that moment, Lear's will is no longer the world's law, a change of circumstance that dumbfounds him. Ms. Jackson turns his fall from power into a carefully graded ascent into self-knowledge. Yes, this king howls and rants and reviles, after being turned out by the daughters he assumed would always worship him.
But his madness is that of a cosseted egotist who has experienced an electric shock to his solipsism. Divested of home and "the large effects that troop with majesty," Lear is forced to perceive the loneliness and nakedness of the human lot, and Ms. Jackson makes sure that we see him seeing it.
On that blasted heath, in the fabled storm of the third act (bizarrely played on the shallow ledge left by the fallen drop curtain), what registers most poignantly aren't the violent imprecations.
It's Lear's astonished, self-lacerating recognition of what he calls "unaccommodated man" as a universal condition. When Lear startlingly sees himself in a half-naked beggar (Sean Carvajal as the disguised Edgar) on the heath, Ms. Jackson's wondering, wounded expression suggests an epiphany that's both glorious and damning.
Sad to say, nothing else in this production matches her incisiveness.
Mr. Gold took brazen but rewarding liberties with Shakespeare in his excellent, starry New York productions of "Othello" (with Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo, in 2016) and "Hamlet" (with Oscar Isaac in 2017).
Presented in intimate Off Broadway houses, these shows made the audience feel complicit with performers, who seemed to be excavating their characters and unearthing precious discoveries as we watched. Mr. Gold's "Lear" is filled with gimmicky stage business that hasn't been refined into a more fully integrated point of view.
Or maybe the problem is that the cast members seem to be moving to different internal music and rhythms, so that no one appears to be in sync with anyone else. Is that Mr. Gold's point? It seems fitting that in this version, Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Russell Harvard), is deaf. Is Cornwall's aide (Michael Arden) -- who conspicuously interprets speeches into vigorous sign language -- perhaps meant to signify the difficulty of disparate souls communicating?
Oh, I don't know. Nor did I really understand why there was a life-size ceramic pug and lion by Lear's throne. Or why everyone -- including Lear's supposedly ill-kempt, rowdy soldiers -- looks like extras from "Downton Abbey" in their evening clothes (the illustrious Ann Roth did the costumes), forever sipping tea or Champagne, even when the world is falling apart.
(I think I do understand why Ms. Wilson's piquant, Cockney-accented Fool, after delivering a poem about the topsy-turviness of an unhinged world, pulls up his trousers to reveal American flag socks. But it's a desperate and sour bid for relevance.)
The cast members at least seem to know what they're saying, although few of them (the double-cast Ms. Wilson is an exception) have taken the next step in creating complete portraits. Mr. Thompson (as the faithful Kent) and Ms. Houdyshell (as the doomed, fatuous Gloucester) and Pedro Pascal (as the dastardly Edmund) deliver clear-spoken but oddly unmodulated performances.
Ms. Marvel at least seems to have a thought-through idea for her Goneril (as a sexually overcharged society hostess). But it's hard to imagine her emerging from the same royal nursery as Ms. O'Sullivan's shrill, primal Regan.
Such disparities mean that the kingdom of Lear becomes a very, very lonely planet, where no one has anyone to talk to, really. Maybe that's why so many of the performers pitch their monologues directly to the audience, like stand-up comics in search of reassurance.
That does not include Ms. Jackson's Lear. Her monologues are delivered defiantly to the heavens, as if she had a direct line to a cruel and almighty God. On the basis of this supremely intelligent performance, I don't doubt that she does.
Tickets Through July 7 at the Cort Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, kinglearonbroadway.com. Running time: 3 hours 30 minutes.
Credits By William Shakespeare; directed by Sam Gold; music by Philip Glass; sets by Miriam Buether; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Jane Cox; sound by Scott Lehrer; hair and makeup by Campbell Young Associates; company manager, Lizbeth Cone; production stage manager, Kevin Bertolacci; production manager, Aurora Productions. Presented by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, No Guarantees, Stephanie P. McClelland, Universal Theatrical Group, Len Blavatnik, James L. Nederlander, Rosalind Productions, Inc., Barbara Manocherian, John Gore Organization, Jay Alix and Una Jackman, Jamie deRoy, Wendy Federman, Al Nocciolino, Candy Spelling, True Love Productions, Adam Rodner, the Shubert Organization and executive producers, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner and John Johnson.
Cast Glenda Jackson, Ruth Wilson, Jayne Houdyshell, Elizabeth Marvel, Aisling O'Sullivan, Pedro Pascal, John Douglas Thompson, Sean Carvajal, Russell Harvard, Matthew Maher, Michael Arden, Justin Cunningham, Dion Johnstone, Ian Lassiter and Stephanie Roth Haberle