Thursday, 24 November 2016

Theatre Review: King Lear (Old Vic)

When the news came that Glenda Jackson would be returning to the London stage after an absence of 25 years to play King Lear in a new production directed by Deborah Warner, my first reaction (like most people's) was Wow”! That response was followed quite swiftly by another thought: I wish Pauline Kael was around to write about this!

Sometimes positive but generally not, Kaels appraisals of Jacksons distinctively brittle screen performances have given me as much pleasure as her writing on any actress. Full of acclaim for Jacksons TV work in Elizabeth R, Kael came to find Jacksons clenched, hard film performances much more problematic, and expressed her displeasure in some memorably cutting remarks.

Miscast, Jackson can scratch on ones nerves; she can even seem to be scratching on her own nerves, Kael wrote in her (actually favourable) review of The Return of the Soldier (1983). For Kael, Jackson - spiky-thin, with slitted eyes showing malice - was the least lyrical major actress of her day,” her performances familiarly grating.”

[Jackson has] been in movies only since 1967, Kael complained in her piece on Michael Apteds Triple Echo (1972), its too soon for us to know her every trick, yet shes as easy to imitate as Bette Davis. For Kael, Jackson was a coiled-tight actress who articulates each shade of emotion with such exactness that she has no fluidity and no ease. She carries no-nonsense precision to the point of brutality; she doesnt just speak her lines she flicks them out disgustedly.” Kael diagnosed an unnecessary tension in [Jackson’s] voice and body,” and seemed to put her finger on the issue when she observed: “it could be that shes so determined not to be smiley-sweet that she looks daggers.


The qualities of androgyny and abrasiveness that irked Kael about Jackson on screen are part of what make the actress a formidably great stage Lear. From the moment she appears - still “spiky-thin” and defiantly “no-nonsense” - Jackson commands the stage with an apparent effortlessness that’s all the more staggering following her long absence from theatre. If the performance takes a little while to really warm up that may be due to some of the production’s more questionable decisions (after all, a cardie and slacks ensemble doesn’t do a whole lot to suggest regality).

But by the time Jackson’s Lear is spewing curses or, later, fiercely berating himself for his neglect of his kingdom, the actress’s control and mastery are quite breathtaking. Jackson does what any great Shakespearean does: she makes us hear familiar speeches totally afresh. The descent into madness is charted with rasping poignancy but without special pleading. Awakening, shocked, to find herself reunited with Cordelia  (Morfydd Clark), the lightness of touch that Jackson gives to lines like “I am a very foolish fond old man” is superbly judged. In not begging for pathos, the actress achieves true pathos. (And, even, though Kael might doubt it, true lyricism.)

  King Lear (Credit: Alastair Muir)

The rest of the production is more mixed. I’m a huge fan of Deborah Warner’s productions generally (even her much-derided School for Scandal made my Top 10 of 2011), which have a messy, uncontrolled atmosphere that can be very exciting. Here, though, some of Warner's ideas feel shopworn. This isn’t the first time that Warner has directed Lear (her 1990 NT production with Brian Cox in the title role was widely praised) and maybe she takes too much for granted: the bits of Brechtian business (the spare, white box set; the rehearsal room ambience of the opening; the casual, contemporary costumes; captions announcing Act and Scene, and so on) don’t add up to much.

Yet the affected staging is fitfully powerful: the storm scene, in particular, is simply great, with Jackson and Rhys Ifans’s Fool making their way towards us across billows of black plastic sheets, while a wind effect ensures that we too feel the chill. And I admire Warner for not doing the obvious, such as setting the play in some overt post-Brexit Britain facsimile that would have probably got a lot of people very excited.

  King Lear (Credit: Alastair Muir
The performances surrounding Jackson are fitful, too. Both Celia Imrie, as a matronly Goneril, and Jane Horrocks, as a whorish Regan, feel miscast. Imrie’s indignant line readings sometimes suggest Miss Babs at her most self-righteous, and when she reaches for a pair of marigold gloves to clean up some sick in a late scene, an Acorn Antiques homage actually seems intended. Yet the ferocity Imrie gives to her reading of Goneril’s last line almost redeems the whole performance. Teetering on spiky heels, Horrocks overdoes it quite a bit throughout. Yet, cackling as she clings to Cornwall (Danny Webb), something memorable is achieved: an archetype of coupledom at its most grotesque.

Karl Johnson is a solid, if not exceptional, Gloucester and the always-interesting Warner-fave Harry Melling succeeds in showing Edgar finding himself within Poor Tom’s disinhibition, while Simon Manyonda’s strong Edmund limbers up for malice with press-ups and a skipping rope. (Any production that doesn’t cut Edmund’s final attempted moment of repentance - as this one doesn’t - also wins points from me.)

As with Hamlet, the greatness and depth of King Lear is such that no single production can really encompass it, and, while Jackson’s greatness in the role seems to have been acclaimed by all, Warner’s staging has proved as divisive as expected.  It's an erratic Lear, to be sure. Yet, writing about this by turns annoying and exhilarating, obtuse and illuminating production a few weeks after seeing it makes me feel very eager to see it again.

King Lear is booking at the Old Vic until 3 December.

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