Just three years ago the Old Vic created a Shakespearean debacle when it offered up a production of Much Ado About Nothing with Vanessa Redgrave, then in her mid-70s, and James Earl Jones, in his early-80s, as the courting romantics Beatrice and Benedick. Michael Billington was moved to declare in a one-star review for The Guardian, "I am the last person to complain about senior citizens being given free rein. I also hold Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in high regard but casting them as Beatrice and Benedick results in one of the most senseless Shakespearean productions I have seen in a long time."
Now the Old Vic is issuing another Shakespearean challenge by having Glenda Jackson -- a now 80 year old, two-times Oscar winning actress who put her acting career on hold for the last quarter century when she embarked on an alternative career as a constituency MP -- make a return to the stage in the title role of King Lear. As Matthew Warchus, who is artistic director of the Old Vic (but did not direct this production), comments in a programme introduction that when he chooses what to put on its stage, "I need to try and resist automatically selecting the usual list of famous plays and putting them on, Everest-style, just 'because they're there'." He goes on to say that Shakespeare's plays, in particular, are "presented so frequently that their ability to operate in anything even close to to the fresh and surprising way that they did when first staged has been seriously undermined. That's why I aim to make sure that whenever we do tackle Shakespeare here, we do so with a spirit of adventure and with something unexpected and special to offer."
In a year in which I've already seen two King Lear's myself -- at Manchester with a really fine black actor Don Warrington playing the monarch and at Stratford-upon-Avon with RSC star Antony Sher (in a production that also moves to London this week to begin a season at the Barbican from November 10) -- this Old Vic production meets the challenge Warchus sets himself. It's certainly adventurous, unexpected and special, and not just because the king is played by a woman.
After all we've recently seen the much younger Maxine Peake play Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange and Michelle Terry as Henry V at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, and currently the glorious Harriet Walter is doing a triple bill of Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero in the Donmar's trilogy of all-female Shakespeare's. So female appropriation of what are traditionally male roles is hardly a novelty anymore.
Rather, the surprise is see THIS woman playing King Lear. And she's phenomenal: just merely in terms of endurance and memory, but in the forceful way she owns the stage, by turns dominating and eventually desperate as this King grieves so movingly for the only loyal of his three daughters and the havoc he has wrought by surrendering power to the other two.
Director Deborah Warner -- who has previously directed also Fiona Shaw as Richard II for the National and twice previously tackled this play with male actors in the title role -- offers a rigorous modern-dress version of the play that is full of powerful performances, and just occasionally a provocation too far: do both Edgar and Edmund need to moon the audience? And does Edgar really have to strip completely naked? (When both Ian Holm and Ian McKellen played the King for the National and RSC respectively, they were the ones who went naked; for obvious reasons, Jackson avoids it).
But thanks to Jackson, and a cast around her that includes Karl Johnson as a notably fine Gloucester, the nakedly vulnerable Harry Melling as Edgar, and Celia Imrie Jane Horrocks and Morydd Clark as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively, this is easily the most compelling Lear I've seen this year.
What the Press Said...
"Jackson’s performance catches perfectly the zigzag patterns of Lear’s mix of insight and insanity. This is “reason in madness” to the very life."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Some of those flourishes – including the lobbing of one of Gloucester’s eyeballs out into the audience – land in the zone of gimmickry, and the show is perhaps a little too pleased with itself. But having allowed Glenda to score such a blinder, who can blame it?"
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"I’m giving this production four stars largely on account of the inspiring Jackson. When the audience rose in a fervent standing ovation, were we expressing gratitude for this particular prodigious feat or presenting her with a lifetime achievement award? Quite rightly and inextricably, it was both."
Paul Taylor for The Independent