There is a history of women playing classic male Shakespearean roles; in the past few years, parts stretching from Hamlet and Julius Caesar to Prospero and Richard III have been taken on by a range of actresses at British theatres, from Maxine Peake at the Manchester Royal Exchange to Harriet Walter for the Donmar Warehouse. The part of King Lear, however, has remained almost resolutely male.
There are exceptions, of course. In 1990, an 80-year-old Marianne Hope played Lear in a production directed by Robert Wilson. Kathryn Hunter took on the role in 1997, earning mixed reviews for her portrayal. Yet, despite these notable performances, the concept is still treated as a novelty at best, and an ‘absurdity’ (as Hope herself pointed out) at worst. Glenda Jackson’s appearance in the role for Deborah Warner’s new production for the Old Vic, then, is doubly remarkable; not only is Jackson adding her name to the female Lear canon, but the production is the actress and politician’s first stage role in 25 years. As a result, Jackson’s casting has generated some serious theatrical buzz, with all eyes on her to see how she handles the quintessential older male role. As soon as Jackson strides onto the stage, however, voice cracking like a whip as she calls her daughters to order, the casting choice seems anything but absurd.
Jackson beautifully captures Lear’s contradictions – his bitterness and love, his strength and immense vulnerability. At times, her voice is barely audible; at others, her speech seems to rip from her involuntarily, as when she cries with frustration for her daughters to ‘reason not the need’. The storm scene is immensely impressive; framed against a vast black backdrop, Jackson vocally battles the elements, lightning flashing, wind ripping at the staging. She fills the space with the command of someone four times her size.
The supporting cast is dripping with big names and many of them put in very effective performances. Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks as Goneril and Regan are suitably nasty. Rhys Ifans is impeccably cast as Lear’s fool, bringing both the giddy tomfoolery and strange melancholy needed to make the role a success. Harry Melling particularly impresses as Edgar, showcasing the character’s journey from naive joviality to hardened disillusionment, as he experiences betrayal, hardship and loss.
Director Deborah Warner has boldly chosen not to make any cuts to the text and, on the whole, the staging is kept sparse. The production plays with the connection between body and mind, strength and frailty. Edmund’s opening monologue is delivered during a workout routine in a gratuitous display of fitness and virility, and several characters bare their buttocks to the audience or strip onstage. When, after Cordelia is hanged, Jackson laments how her physical weakness rendered her unable to defend her daughter, her small frame and increasingly slippery grip on reality add an additional poignancy to the words.
Not all the additions work. A hinted-at romance between Kent and Cordelia is misjudged, adding little to either character and distracting from Lear and Cordelia’s touching reunion. The removal of Gloucester’s eyes seemed a little rushed, although Danny Webb relishes Cornwall’s nastier moments.
But Glenda Jackson’s performance will be the main draw here, and she is a magnetic presence with spectacular energy. It’s no easy feat performing for 3.5 hours; to do it at 80 years old and to deliver a performance of this calibre deserves a great deal of respect. She is remarkable.
>King Lear runs at the Old Vic Theatre until 3rd December 2016.