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When you hear that Glenda Jacksonis doing King Lear, you should start putting your boots on and head to theCort Theatre in New York. You will not be disappointed.

In this modern dress productiondirected by Sam Gold, we have Glenda Jackson as an old and frail King Lear (sheis a king and not a queen) with a furrowed face which at first blush maysuggest that Goneril and Regan are right. The Authority that Kent discerns inLear’s countenance is more in past remembrance of it than in present reality.

But as the play progresses, wesee in Jackson a Lear with a deeply dramatic voice that she can modulate in herexpression of fury, sorrow, humiliation and self-realization. She wears aformal suit in the opening scene and her voice is deep enough for us to accepther as a king. The result is a stupendous performance in a unique realizationof King Lear.

The production opens on a formaloccasion in a large gold-coloured state room. The men wear formal attire andthe women wear gorgeous evening gowns. They are all sipping champagne while astring quartet is playing chamber music in the corner. This is not barbaric,old England.

The quartet will stay on stageduring most of the performance and play frequently sometimes short snippets andlonger pieces at other times. The music is composed by the eminent Philip Glassand he is listed on the programme above the director Sam Gold. The quartetemphasizes the aristocratic milieu and importance of the opening scene wherethe aging king divides the kingdom. I could not figure out what their presencemeant for most of the rest of the performance.

At the beginning the beautifullydressed Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan) appear quitepolite if over-gushing and their evil side is revealed slowly but is quitesweeping in its viciousness. Cordelia (Ruth Wilson who also plays the Fool) standsher ground without being mousy. She is principled and honest.

The Duke of Cornwall is played byRussell Harvard who is deaf. He wears a Scottish kilt and is accompanied by aservant who communicates with him in sign language and verbalizes theirexchanges for the audience. Bold casting by director Sam Gold and a fine performanceby Harvard.

As with the evil sisters andCornwall, Gold humanizes the characters. The evil Edmund (Pedro Pascal) is notexaggerated at all. He has a sense of humour and the evil in him is simply partof his nature. He enjoys his evilness and is shameless about it.

He is shown having rather graphicsex with Regan to confirm our suspicion about their relationship going wellbeyond a self-serving conspiracy. We know better anyway. Excellent work by actorand director.

The Fool is played by Ruth Wilsonas a Chaplinesque figure who is genuinely funny and touching. Superb work inthe interpretation of a role that can be funny more in the imagination of theaudience than on stage.

The famous scene near the end ofthe play where Lear carries Cordelia onto the stage crying “howl, howl” isaltered for obvious reasons. She is lowered from the ceiling with a rope aroundher neck. A truly dramatic solution to the problem of having Jackson carryWilson on stage.

The Duke of Gloucester is playedby a woman, Jayne Houdyshell, pretending to be a man. I do not doubtHoudyshell’s acting ability but I wonder what is gained by having a woman playthe role of Gloucester. Is Gold, in one of his personal quirks, insisting thata woman as Lear must be balanced with a woman as Gloucester? Perhaps.

Gold at 41 is a young directorcarving out a career in classical and modern theatre. He gives us a personalview of the play that may have a few too many personal touches. So be it. Onecan argue with him on many points but this production of King Lear is unforgettable. 


King Learby William Shakespeare continues until July 7, 2019 at the Cort Theatre,138 West 48th Street, New York. 212 239 6200

May 24, 2019

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