Glenda Jackson has spent the last 25 years researching the intricacies of political life especially for this role (she’s been the MP for Hampstead and Highgate). It was worth it – and what a loss to the stage the last quarter of a century has been. Her gender-switched Lear is by turns viperous, bawdy and heartbreaking, flicking in an instant from cognisant to infirm.
Her tiny frame, oversized clothes hanging from her, highlights the fragility at the heart of Lear, a physical reminder of the weakness age brings to us all. Not that her performance shows any hint of weakness; Jackson displays a remarkable vocal control throughout the punishing play, stretching vowels grotesquely: “We unburdened craaaaaaawl toward towards death”.
Alongside Jackson on the payroll is the excellent Rhys Ifans as the Fool, whose highlights include reading his “the knave turns fool that runs away” speech to the tune of Bob Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm. Jane Horrocks and Celia Imrie are both strong as the elder sisters, though their characters are rather two dimensional; selfish and pitiless to the end.
The set is reminiscent of Lars von Trier movie Dogville, empty but for a series of white dividers upon which words like “movable wall” and “Act 1. Sc 1.” are projected, while scene changes are carried out in open view (“There’s bound to be something symbolic about these vacuum cleaners,” deadpanned the man next to me).
The actors meanwhile, appear to be wearing whatever they arrived in that day – ill-fitting suits, tracksuit bottoms, high-vis jackets – presumably demonstrating that King Lear requires no superficial fluff to get its message across.
But this feels at odds with directorial flourishes such as having Edmund deliver his opening monologue while skipping rope, or just about every character’s propensity to bear their buttocks at any given opportunity.
The production is also brutally long, almost four hours including the interval, and the minimal staging and occasionally muffled dialogue – especially during the spectacular storm scenes – give director Deborah Warner’s take on the material an air of incoherence; it’s certainly not one for Lear virgins. But any sense of fatigue vanishes when Jackson is on stage – watching her is worth every second.