Saturday, 19th November 2016 – King Lear, The Old Vic Theatre, London
This has – as has been noted in a number of places – been something of a year of Lear, with around half a dozen major productions staged around the UK during the course of 2016. We’ve already seen the Michael Pennington version (set in what felt like a pre-Revolutionary Russia in terms of staging) at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, and the RSC’s version with Anthony Sher in the title role in what can best be described as an almost pre-historic, or at the very least early pagan, milieu. So despite feeling somewhat Lear-ed out, when it was announced that Glenda Jackson was going to return to the stage after almost a quarter of a century away when she was busy being a Member of Parliament, and that she would be playing Lear at the Old Vic, directed by Deborah Warner, there was little hesitation in my mind that we needed tickets and urgently. For one thing, at 80 year’s old, the opportunities to see her in action are perforce likely to be in short supply.
Shortly before the run opened we had a message from the theatre saying that as a result of the running time, which was coming out at 3.5 hours, the original start time of 14:30 had been brought forward to 13:00. And so it was we caught a train (annoyingly packed with people who were way too drunk considering it was 11:30 in the morning) and made our way across London to arrive in good time at the theatre. Drinks for the interval sorted as soon as the doors to the auditorium opened we made our way in, and watched as various members of the cast wandered around apparently working on and cleaning the set, sitting making notes, or chatting aimlessly together. The set was mostly plain white flats, a row of blue chairs and not much else. The cast were mostly in fairly nondescript modern dress and everything had been pared right back, leaving what is a massive stage space for the actors to roam around.
The performance that followed was amazing, with Ms. Jackson proving a stunning stage presence, and more importantly perhaps an incredible vocal presence. She uses her voice like a fine instrument, and the sheer range of that phenomenal voice, from a deep angry shout, to a howl, a growl, to playful or malicious twisting of words left the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. It was extraordinary, and you rapidly forgot you were watching a woman playing a man; you were just watching the character going through a hell of their own making. It’s rare that an actor is the same age as the character when playing Lear, which made the feat of endurance and memory all the more impressive when you bear in mind that Ms. Jackson first stepped on a professional stage aged 21 in 1957 when Pennington was only 14 and Sher was 8… One reviewer called her performance ferocious, and that is indeed probably a very apt description. I’d opt for visceral too, and all the while driven by that incredible voice. The standing ovation from a packed house at the end was completely deserved, especially after she’d also managed to make every word heard above the storm.
The remainder of the cast they were mostly excellent (and at least good), with Goneril and Regan played as a thoroughly nasty pair, the former in sharp business suits and with a serious reliance on the bottle, played by Celia Imrie, who was as good as ever and who I suspect cannot deliver a bad performance, and the latter a predatory but fragile bottle-blonde in tight jeans and towering heels who is jealous of both of her sisters right from the start, and played by Jane Horrocks in an equally effective piece of work. It’s fair to say that Morfydd Clark as Cordelia had her work cut out up against those two, especially as Cordelia is quite a wishy-washy part at the start of the work. She managed to make it work anyway, and it was one of the stronger Cordelias of the year. Of the other performances, of particular note were Rhys Ifans as the Fool, putting in some excellent Bob Dylan impressions and manfully swallowing a whole egg yolk early on. I don’t envy him that on a repeated basis! It can’t be pleasant…
Karl Johnson as Gloucester was the least clear-spoken and seemed for some reason to be taking it at a gallop at least initially, though he improved hugely in the scenes after Gloucester is blinded and redeemed himself nicely with the level of bathos you might expect from such a part.
Danny Webb made a particularly nasty Cornwall, gleefully wreaking mayhem on his enemies, and plucking Gloucester’s eyes out with unseemly relish (and hurling said “eyeballs” into the stalls too to the discomfort of the people it landed on). His relationship with his wife was portrayed as more than slightly dysfunctional and made it the more believable as a result.
Honorable mentions should also go to Sargon Yelda as Kent with an interesting range of accents, Simon Manyonda as Edmond and Harry Melling as Edgar, the sibling rivalry between the latter pair made very clear from the start, or at least Edmond’s side of it. Edgar was as oblivious as I’ve ever seen the part played, and it worked really well as a result.
The one especially jarring note of the play was the King of France speaking in a ridiculous and obviously fake accent that pulled me right out of the moment. And to be honest Jackson is so good that it probably wouldn’t matter if the rest of the cast simply sat and read their lines in a monotone. Get a ticket if you can! Beg, borrow, steal… whatever it takes, because it looks like this won’t make it onto the cinema screens, and you really, really need to see this if you possibly can. It has the makings of one of those rare theatrical events that those who saw it will talk about forever.