November 2016 will be topped and tailed for me by two new productions of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, and this first one is a rather significant one, as it represents the return to the stage of Glenda Jackson after her quarter of a century career change to represent Hampstead and Highgate (later Kilburn) in Parliament.
The Old Vic is not the most obvious venue for a modern dress, Brechtian, Lear, with its Victorian proscenium – however, director Deborah Warner and her co-designer Jean Kalman have created a staging which at first looks as if might use the whole stage space (it is fully opened out and set with movable walls, screens, and plastic chairs on which some of the cast sit and chat before the action starts). In fact most scenes are staged on the front of the stage, which projects into the auditorium necessitating the removal of the first few rows of the stalls.
So, a minimal set and staging (and each scene number projected on to the screens or on top of the proscenium – perhaps to assist those new to the play to stay engaged throughout its mammoth running time; 3 hrs 35 on the final preview on Thursday), and modern costumes. Jane Horrocks’ toxic Regan wears killer black heels; Rhys Ifans’ Fool is dressed as Superman and in one scene dons a scary clown’s mask; Karl Johnson’s Gloucester wears jeans.
Glenda Jackson plays the King, and although there is no gender impersonation here, she dons androgynous blacks and reds and has her hair in a short and severe style. Her authority effortlessly commands the stage in her first appearance, in which her love for Morfydd Clark’s sweet Cordelia (they arrive hand in hand) curdles so quickly to rage you almost have sympathy for Regan and Goneril (a steely Celia Imrie), having to cope with so changeable and terrifying a parent. She displays a sarcastic vein of humour too, in the ‘crawl towards death’ line, and later, in her interplay with the Fool’ and she handles the storm scenes well in flowing shirt and long socks, in despairing, shattered senility.
Johnson’s Gloucester elicits sympathy as he appears less of a statesman and more of a meddling Polonius-type, and although some of the audience seemed to find his ‘I have no eyes’ line amusing, it was deeply felt and beautifully delivered. As the bad son, Edmond, Simon Manyonda first appears doing an exhausting workout with skipping rope and press-ups, before dismissing his doting brother Edgar by mooning the audience. He is a studious and serious traitor, colluding with those watching from the dark and mocking the two daughters who, barren and frigid in their respective marriages, salivate over him.
Edgar, played by Harry Melling, is good in the Poor Tom scenes (curiously by the time we get to the ‘naked fellow’ lines he is clothed, but he does disrobe completely earlier on), although he overdoes the speech stating his father’s ‘heart burst’, striking his chest repeatedly in the echo of a heartbeat. I note he is one of the Troughton acting family as well as a Harry Potter alumnus, and can see some of his family potential (his uncle David is soon over at the Barbican in the second November Lear I mentioned earlier, playing Gloucester).
Rounding out the cast are Danny Webb as a psychotic Cornwall, all smiles before the steel temper strikes (the blinding of Gloucester is done well, with suggestive shadows and piercing Regan scream); William Chubb as a sympathetic Albany, trapped in a marriage which has decayed for years; Gary Sefton as an ingratiating Oswald; and Sargon Yelda as a strangely young and vital Kent. The scene where the King of France accepts a dowerless Cordelia is somewhat spoilt by his comic accent, but that’s a small criticism.
This is Glenda Jackson’s moment, though, and she surely shines. Her interplay with her fellow cast is convincing – in particular with Ifans’ Fool, Yelda’s disguised Kent (and earlier, in his banishment scene), and her daughters. Her ‘howl, howl’ as she is dragged in on a carpet with her deceased young daughter is heart-rending, and her refusal of Gloucester’s request to kiss her hand ‘let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality’ is nicely done, as is her recognition of him despite her previous staggering madness with leafed crown.
A nod, too, for the design of the storm, with projections, sound, and large black plastic sheet simply shaken. The effect is spectacular.
Photos by Manuel Harlan. King Lear runs at the Old Vic until the 3rd December. Book tickets at http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2016/king-lear/.