Women are in firm control of the kingdom in Broadway’s Cort Theatre, where a new revival of “King Lear,” starring Glenda Jackson in the title role, opened Thursday. Jackson’s Lear is, naturally, the production’s dominant, galvanizing force: It’s a performance as fiery and ferocious as it is authoritative. But she is surrounded by a cast of fellow female performers — including Jayne Houdyshell as a marvelous Earl of Gloucester, in another gender-switched performance, and Ruth Wilson, doubling as Cordelia and the Fool — who often outshine their male counterparts in director Sam Gold’s largely compelling if uneven production.
Gold, who has demonstrated an unerring touch when directing contemporary work, has been less sure-footed, or rather more heavy-handed, when it comes to revivals. Those who favor their Shakespeare served traditionally may find much to bridle at here: modern-dress productions such as this one are hardly radical, of course, but Gold’s also takes place almost entirely within a golden-marble-walled set — the reception room of Donald Trump’s dreams! — arrayed with furniture (also gilt!) that is gradually reduced to rubble as the play churns with conflict and violence. (Miriam Buether designed the sets.) By the end the actors have to pick their way through the debris, somewhat distractingly, or moonlight as janitors while delivering their lines.
And did I mention the onstage string quartet, dressed, like the rest of the cast in the early scenes, in Ann Roth’s stylish formal evening attire? Their presence might also be classified as a distraction, despite the beauty of the original neoclassical score, by no less than Philip Glass, because often they are playing as the actors are speaking. This puts Glass’s music in competition with Shakespeare’s own lyricism.
Still, Shakespeare’s mighty masterpiece has a way of forging an emotionally wrenching path into the heart and mind even through the thickest of directorial inventions, and that is largely the case here. Jackson may be virtually the smallest person onstage, physically, but her Lear is a thoroughly commanding presence, whose hot bursts of temper flare out at the characters — and the audience — like blasts from a furnace, practically singeing the eyebrows when Lear is at his most snarlingly outraged.
Jackson is so assured in her delivery of the language, and its connection to the character’s gradual descent from royal imperiousness to naked emotional poverty, that there is nary a moment of blurred feeling or rhetorical emptiness. (Incidentally, I should note that both Lear and Gloucester remain male characters, leaving Shakespeare’s language intact.) I might only wish for a greater emphasis on the rending pathos of Lear, so integral to the character’s later scenes.
“King Lear” can leave you in floods of tears even upon a brisk reading, but Jackson’s Lear retains such a stiff-spined authority, even in his most despairing moments, that my eyes remained mostly dry throughout. Just before Jackson delivers one of the play’s most haunting lines, “O, I have ta’en too little care of this,” Lear’s recognition of the frailty and vulnerability he discovers he has in common with all mankind, Jackson delivers a disconcertingly furious howl.
Throughout, the production contains some thrilling revelations. “Mad” and
“madness” are words that recur in the text as Lear’s mind disintegrates under physical and psychological distress. Jackson’s stunning ferocity, in denouncing first Cordelia for not paying proper homage to Lear’s power, and later Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan) for their lack of obeisance, is so shocking in its fury that it suggests it is Lear’s sheer intemperance, his inability to modulate his feelings, that leads to his madness. When he cries to the indifferent universe, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” the words ring piercingly true not just because his suffering is so great, but because we have also seen the suffering he has imposed on others.
Here we come to another of the production’s revelations. Both Goneril and Regan are usually played as scarcely veiled vipers from the start, whose honeyed words ring as loudly hollow as an empty barrel, and whose treatment of their father displays their venality. But both Marvel and O’Sullivan bring more complex emotional shadings to their characters. True, by the play’s end they have morphed into amoral monsters, squabbling and scheming over their their mutual, explicitly depicted lust for Edmund (Pedro Pascal) even as they brutalize their father’s sympathizers.
But when first Marvel’s Goneril and later O’Sullivan’s Regan plead with Lear to reduce or at least contain the excesses of his followers, they come across as sincere and even reasonable. And when Lear responds with lancingly bitter vituperation, Marvel’s Goneril, in particular, seems truly shellshocked with agitation and even grief, her tear-stained face not a mask of hypocrisy but an honest reflection of her stunned reaction.
While Cordelia is among the most thankless female roles in the Shakespeare canon, Wilson works absolute wonders within its minimal contours, delivering the finest performance of the role I have seen. Rather than acting as a simpering, self-righteous child — as the character can often seem — Wilson’s Cordelia is very much her father’s daughter, with a spine of steel, who will not be manipulated. She, like Lear, holds fast to her integrity (although his, as the play reveals so woundingly, is far from perfect). We can understand easily why Lear has always favored her, because she is a reflection of himself — which makes the rending of their relationship all the more piteous, and their reunion in extremis so harrowing.
And as the Fool, Wilson is an immeasurable delight, bringing a vaudevillian panache to her character’s antics even as she makes his sometimes-tedious word games sparkle with clarity and sad, sardonic wit.
No less fine is the Gloucester of Houdyshell, a treasure of the New York stage, who captures with unusual vigor the character’s desperate attempts to broker some sort of détente between outraged father and indifferent daughters. One of the most tender moments in any production of Lear is the final encounter between the blinded Gloucester and a maddened Lear, when these two once-powerful men express their fondness for each other in their mutual abjection; this brief scene alone is worth the price of admission in Gold’s production.
In contrast to the distaff side, the performances by the male members of the cast are a mixed bag. Pascal makes for a glintingly glib Edmund, the treacherous bastard son of Gloucester, but Sean Carvajal’s Edgar, Gloucester’s legitimate and loyal son, seems to have wandered in from another era, his contemporary, colloquial line readings jarringly at odds with most of the rest of the cast. His flattening performance detracts from the power of the heartrending scenes in which, disguised as the babbling beggar Tom, he encounters the blinded Gloucester. John Douglas Thompson, one of the city’s finest classical actors, gives a solid if also somewhat stolid performance as the loyal Earl of Kent.
On the plus side of the ledger, the deaf actor Russell Harvard brings a softly savage edge to his Duke of Cornwall, aided by the sign-language interpretation of the likewise-excellent Michael Arden (also known as a director of, among other productions, the Tony-winning “Once on This Island” and the Deaf West Theater’s “Spring Awakening”). And Matthew Maher makes a surprisingly hefty comic meal of the small role of Goneril’s minion Oswald. (The production as a whole unearths a surprising amount of comedy in this most grim of tragedies.)
But this “Lear” mostly gains its power from the stimulating interrelationships etched by the women in the cast, playing roles of either gender. Whether they find inspiration in the rare presence of a woman in the leading role, giving a performance to scald the senses, one cannot say. But, taking her lead, they all bring their A-game, and the production makes a powerful argument for more such gender-neutral casting.
Women have, of course, played leading male Shakespeare roles intermittently, dating back to Sarah Siddons’ and Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet and including a trio of recent all-female productions from the British director Phyllida Lloyd. But such occasions are still comparatively rare, and in this case — and with the aid of the attention-getting spotlight of Broadway — a cause for stimulation and revelation.
Now, how about in the director’s chair?
“King Lear” opened at the Cort Theatre on Thurs., April 4, 2019.
Creative: Written by William Shakespeare; Original Music by Philip Glass; Directed by Sam Gold; Scenic Design by Miriam Buether; Costume Design by Ann Roth; Lighting Design by Jane Cox; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer.
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, No Guarantees, Stephanie P. McClelland, Universal Theatrical Group, Len Blavatnik, James L. Nederlander, Rosalind Productions, Inc., Barbara Manocherian, The John Gore Organization, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, Jamie deRoy, Wendy Federman, Al Nocciolino, Candy Spelling, True Love Productions, Bruce Robert Harris & Jack W. Batman and Adam Rodner.
Cast: Glenda Jackson, Jayne Houdyshell, Elizabeth Marvel, Aisling O’Sullivan, Pedro Pascal, John Douglas Thompson, Ruth Wilson, Michael Arden, Che Ayende, Therese Barbato, Sean Carvajal, Justin Cunningham, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Russell Harvard, Dion Johnston, Ian Lassiter, Matthew Maher, Daniel Marmion, John McGinty.