King Lear at the Old Vic
After a 25-year absence, Glenda Jackson returns to the stage as King Lear in Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy at the Old Vic – and what a return it is. The Oscar-winning actress gives Deborah Warner’s minimalist, contemporary production a ferocious energy, one that transcends gender, belies her age, and brings a timeless quality to the play that is rarely seen in modern interpretations.
The majority of the original verse is maintained, tracking Lear’s descent into madness after banishing his youngest daughter and leaving his land to his two eldest. As he loses his mind, those around him bicker, fight and kill each other, leading to a tragic and messy conclusion. Despite the play’s contemporary resonance, it is Jackson who carries the show almost entirely. She switches from haughty lucidity to utter euphoric insanity in the bat of an eyelid, never once dropping her lightening wit. Every sinew, vein and muscle is used and when stumbling around in the storm, her “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” spits such venom and regret that one can feel the rain soaking them to the skin.
While all lines are delivered with perfect timing, other characters are more hit and miss. Rhys Ifans makes for a hilarious Fool, dressed in a half-hearted superman outfit, but Karl Johnson ironically only manages to give life to Gloucester after he has had his eyes gouged out. Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks bring clearly defined personalities to Goneril and Regan, but are invariably overshadowed by Jackson’s thunderous Lear.
Although stripped back staging can be used to great effect in Shakespeare, where it is the words that carry the action, here it all just falls slightly flat. The fourth wall is abandoned from the very start, as actors mill about chatting on stage while the audience enters, giving the entire thing the air of a dress rehearsal. The props, too, all wooden benches and plastic chairs, seem to be grabbed from a school canteen. This is a shame given that some scenes, such as the storm, use both projections and billowing black tarpaulins to terrifyingly convincing effect.
Drab moments aside, however, this is a witty and sharp production that will draw both horror and laughter, while hailing an outstanding return of Jackson in a role that appears to have been created with exactly her in mind.
King Lear is at the Old Vic Theatre from 25th October until 3rd December 2016. Book your tickets here.