Embodying King Lear is octogenarian Glenda Jackson, fresh from her recent Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women revival comeback after two decades of acting hiatus. Her towering frame suited up as a monarch, she is the right fit for an imposing demented king, his voice thundering against wind and sky as if screaming at nature would delay his impending infirmity.
The four-centuries-old William Shakespeare tale begins with the aging and retiring King Lear splitting his kingdom between his three daughters based on their declaration of love for him. The first two daughters, Goneril and Regan, feed him flattery to accept their share of his land. The third, Cordelia, calls out the pretense, which enrages the king into disowning her. This decision proves regrettable when he settles with his remaining daughters and his behavior provokes them to kick him out—then scheme against him. Meanwhile, the Earl’s illegitimate son, Edmund, has framed his half-brother, Edgar, so Edmund can inherit the Earl title. There are few moral players, like Cordelia and the beguiled Edgar, but there are no sides to take in this Shakespearian world. We can only bear witness to the mayhem.
As you would expect in Shakespeare’s universe, the entanglements are SNAFU. King Lear is the ideal material for a Trumpian tale, a drama riddled with power plays, falsehoods, and waning sanity. Under Sam Gold’s electrifying direction, this particular interpretation has a ball with lampooning the narcissism of regal brains, who are offended by the loss of power more so than the loss of loved ones. However, the execution is rather mixed in this confounding production, relying on its cast to compel its audience.
The deliberate design and directorial extremes don’t always hit bullseye. The gilded gold chamber backdrop illuminates the artifice of the ruling class with Trumpian shade but its static presence exhausts itself. The Fool flashing his stripe-and-stars socks during a monologue is a tad over-punctuated, as if “haha, look, we’re reflecting Trump America in this story.” I don’t oppose the decision to stage Shakespeare’s nature scenes before man-made backdrops but the choice mutes the nature scene of its, well, nature. During the stormy scenes, actors thrash against steel-sheeted walls, an uncanny effect that drowned its drama in noise. A string quartet, with music by Philip Glass, accompanies the action and dialogue but their presence cloys rather than compliment.
The A-list cast around Jackson is rock-solid. Gush about Jackson’s classiness as much as I can, Ruth Wilson also deserved her Tony nod in her inspired doubling as Cordelia and the Fool—adding dimensions to the line “my poor fool is hanged.” With sardonic Chaplin-esque mannerisms and cockney snark, Wilson is the only character who can siphon Jackson’s kingly power as the Fool, the only soul allowed to get away with deprecating the King. The world is populated with other standouts. Pedro Pascal revels as the villainous Edmund with “let me be evil” resentment, only to find himself overwhelmed in the middle of his ladder-climbing. Pascal works well against Sean Carvajal’s good-natured Edgar. Russell Harvard is the Duke of Cromwell, ferociously hand-signing with petulance and rage. Jayne Houdyshell as Earl of Gloucester gives an uncritical pomposity that mirrors Lear’s shortsightedness. Elizabeth Marvel as Goneril and Aisling O’Sullivan as Regan are muhahaha-fun as two scheming royal sisters, whose vendetta against their father stems not just from ambition but from familial disgruntlement.
Despite the stellar cast, sometimes their acting choices don’t always collaborate. Intentions often become lost in the labyrinth of directions. Am I supposed to mourn for Cordelia with King Lear? Do I feel warm for King Lear by the time he’s reunited with his loyal child? Am I supposed to allow pity for those royal sisters overthrowing their father? Am I supposed to pity King Lear or feel repelled by his madness? With a running time of three hours and a half, King Lear never slogs, entrancing you into the action. But this production is a pile of puzzle pieces desperate to complete an unfinished picture, muddled for muddled sake. In the end, King Lear with Glenda Jackson confounds as much as it compels.