(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/4.)
It would be easy to regret Glenda Jackson’s 25-year absence from the stage but she has lost none of her innovative instinct. I suspect her experience of political life and the world’s injustice has enriched her understanding of Lear. Even if I jib at the conventional pieties surrounding Shakespeare’s flawed tragedy, there is no doubting that she is tremendous in the role. In an uncanny way, she transcends gender. What you see, in Deborah Warner’s striking modern-dress production, is an unflinching, non-linear portrait of the volatility of old age. Jackson, like all the best Lears, shifts in a moment between madness and sanity, anger and tenderness, vocal force and physical frailty.
Her great gift, however, is to think each moment of the play afresh. She enters, without undue ceremony, hand in hand with her beloved Cordelia. But there is irony when she announces, in a self-mocking drawl, that she will “crawl” unburdened towards death. Having routinely given Goneril and Regan their share of the kingdom, she ecstatically cries “Now our joy” on turning to Cordelia, and initially greets her refusal to play the game with incredulous laughter. But instantly this turns to violence as she hurls Cordelia to the floor and rushes at Kent with one of the blue chairs that adorn the set. Yet, even here, the mood swiftly changes as Jackson registers the banished Kent’s departure with a derisive regal wave.
Photo credit: Old Vic.