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Theatre in Review: King Lear (Cort Theatre)

Glenda Jackson. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.

Quite possibly the most exciting theatre event of last season was Glenda Jackson in a glittering revival of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women. Long absent from our stages, thanks to a distinguished career in politics, she returned with gale force, offering a pitiless portrait of a vindictive, failing grand dame, raging at her caretakers and reminiscing about her loveless past with icy precision. With her marcelled hair, chalk-white makeup, tottering gait, and a bark that all but took the paint off the walls, she was a magnificent ruin, a portrait of grandeur slipping into irrevocable decay. It was the comeback of the season, the decade, and maybe the century so far, and it left one wondering what she could possibly do for an encore.

The answer came, quickly enough, with the announcement that she was set to tackle King Lear, a role that, only just previously, she had played in London to great acclaim. It was a meeting of role and star that promised the terrors of the earth: An actress of matchless intelligence and fury paired with a titanic role in a tragedy so dark that its corpse-strewn finale seems to adumbrate the onset of twentieth-century nihilism. Well, promises are made to be broken. The revelation of the revival at the Cort is, surprisingly, its redundancy: We didn't know it at the time, but Three Tall Women , an account of the disintegration from which no amount of wealth and power can provide protection, constituted Jackson's Lear. Her characterization in the current production is a dismayingly small-scale creation, stripped of grandeur and only rarely making meaningful contact with the others onstage.

Indeed, this Lear barely seems to be a king at all. From her first entrance, nattily outfitted in a tuxedo, her face a weather map of lines predicting an imminent storm, one expects majesty and malice, the fury of a ruler untethered from the symbols of state and left to rail against an indifferent universe. Early on, Jackson has her moments: Banishing the Earl of Kent (arguably, Lear's one true friend), she concludes her precisely spoken denunciation with "This shall not be revoked," each word its own sentence of doom. And when, a little later, she turns on the ungrateful Goneril, she issues a baleful curse ("Into her womb convey sterility!/Dry up in her the organs of increase;/And from her derogate body never spring/A babe to honour her!") that lands with killing force.

But such moments are dismayingly rare. There are many ways to play Lear -- as someone too convinced of his own majesty, a choleric monarch who doesn't take to being crossed, or an old man slipping into dementia, among others -- but for the play to work, he must seem to occupy an exalted position, a throne from which he looks down on others. Without this, there is nowhere to go when he foolishly gives away his kingdom, unwittingly unmanning himself. Jackson, standing at stage center, radiates no sense of power over others; almost oblivious to those around her, she delivers a performance in old-fashioned actor/manager style, planting herself at stage center and delivering Lear's greatest hits in oratorical style. Some of her line readings are quite strange: Running up and down the vocal scale, elongating a random word or twisting it, she seems to be following a rhythm that she alone can hear.

Even when Lear is humiliated in ways beyond his imagining -- cast out by his daughters, forced to roam the heath, searching for shelter in a furious storm -- Jackson is unable to convey any sense of pity or loss. In many productions, the sight of the king, half-mad and dressed in rags, trembling in the face of the elements, is too terrible to bear. Here, however, the revelation of such vulnerability seems beyond Jackson's reach. The later scenes, including Lear's reunion with Cordelia and his shattering reaction to her death, also lack the tenderness and sorrow that make them so unforgettable. Lear's final speech, a personal glimpse into the abyss contained in five words ("Never, never, never, never, never"), is, when rendered well, an eruption of sorrow; here, it is almost a clinical statement, an accountant's summing-up.

A King Lear with this kind of vacuum in the center will, necessarily, disappoint, but the rest of Sam Gold's production is a mix of interesting and irritating ideas. In Miriam Buether's set design, the action unfolds in a gilded environment suggestive of Trump Tower -- a concept that might have been worked if Lear was played as an overreaching egotist, which doesn't happen here. More bafflingly, Gold has hired Philip Glass to provide all-too-frequent underscoring, played live onstage by a string quartet; in this way, some of the play's best speeches are ruthlessly undercut. (I can't believe anyone in the cast enjoys having to fight the music this way.) In Shakespeare, the words are the music; Glass' contribution doesn't gild the lily so much as suffocate it.

Among the rest of the cast, Ruth Wilson, executing a double act as a radiant Cordelia and a mordant, Brechtian fool, is the best thing in the production. Jayne Houdyshell is an imposing Earl of Gloucester, whose blinding scene is the one moment that attains the horror of a first-class King Lear. Pedro Pascal, directly addressing the audience with a smirk and a note of complicity, is most effective as Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, who sows havoc throughout the kingdom. John Douglas Thompson is effortlessly dignified and apt as Kent, who keeps watch over the distressed, disenfranchised Lear. Russell Harvard is a savage presence as the Duke of Cornwall, whose marriage to Regan ends with his death. (Harvard, who is deaf, works seamlessly with Michael Arden as his aide, who speaks Cornwall's lines.)

On the other hand, Aisling O'Sullivan, seen to good advantage a couple of years ago in a revival of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is a bizarre Regan, giving line readings that almost seem calculated to fight the rhythm and meaning of Shakespeare's verse. Sean Carvajal is an indifferent Edgar, son of Gloucester and prey of his half-brother's schemes. As Goneril, Elizabeth Marvel is in a class by herself. She starts strong, but, apparently under Gold's guidance, slips into needless, jarring vulgarity: At one point, we see her and Edmund rutting onstage; a minute or two later, to seal their alliance, she reaches into her panties and smears his face with his semen. As sometimes happens with this actress, a sense of daring trumps common sense.

Similarly, the production design has its ups and downs. The set includes a metal show curtain that is used, excessively, as a thunder sheet during the scenes on the heath, providing more aural distraction. (Scott Lehrer's sound design is otherwise solid.) Ann Roth's costumes plausibly style Jackson as a man, and her ostentatiously tacky outfits for Regan and Goneril -- including a startlingly yellow gown for the former, which puts one in mind of Tweety Bird -- are a sharply satirical on the ladies' pretensions. Jane Cox's lighting contributes to the glittery atmosphere, then effectively turns stark as Lear's former kingdom falls into disarray.

But, staged at a stately pace, with an uneven company, grating music, and a star in her own personal universe, this is not a Lear for the ages. Jackson has spoken critically about her London Lear, which was done with an entirely different creative team. Is this one really that much better? What can its predecessor have been like? -- David Barbour

(24 April 2019)

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