Glenda Jackson in ‘King Lear.’ (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
Family. You can’t live with ‘em. You can’t live without ‘em. Especially if your name is Lear.
William Shakespeare’s patriarchal power play gets a Broadway reboot, thanks to Glenda Jackson’s star turn in the title role. But if you’re expecting a literal gender-bending commentary as Jackson steps into what has historically been a role played by a man, Sam Gold’s slick and somewhat stoic production might leave you with more questions than answers.
One of Shakespeare’s more cerebral tragedies, King Lear follows the demise of an aging king as his next of kin usurp his power. After banishing his youngest daughter Cordelia (Ruth Wilson) for lack of familial enthusiasm, her sisters Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan) jockey for their positions, husbands in tow. A subplot with the Duke of Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell), his son Edgar (Sean Carvajal), and illegitimate son Edmund (Pedro Pascal) echoes Lear’s demise as generations clash.
Jackson, whose slight frame appears swallowed by costume designer Ann Roth’s androgynous suits, masters Lear’s stubbornness and eventual regret. She finds ample onstage sparring partners with a first-rate and culturally diverse ensemble, but the mash-up of styles, (O’Sullivan’s Irish lilt; Sean Carvajal’s Spanish-tinged accent) require a suspension of disbelief to transport audiences into the world of the play. One fantastic addition is deaf actor Russell Harvard as Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall. Working alongside Michael Arden as his aide, the pair’s use of American Sign Language lends an electrifying physicality to otherwise calculated staging.
Miriam Buether’s gorgeously textured singular set, shimmering in gold and reflecting Jane Cox’s lush lighting design, exudes an air of ostentatious prosperity — like a midcentury modern version of Mar-a-Lago. The comparisons to today’s polarized politics are easily plucked from the text as well, such as when Gloucester says, “‘Tis the times’ plague when madmen lead the blind.”
“Whoever you may be, you can be loved and loving and still demand more,” wrote Shakespeare historian Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. “If you are King Lear, and have ever but slenderly known yourself, then you are almost apocalyptically needy in your demand for love.”
Jackson embodies Bloom’s assessment. At once rigid and fractured in her vulnerability, it’s hard not to root for the King who casts aside the only daughter that truly loved him. But somewhere amid Sam Gold’s efficient direction, underscored by a live string quartet playing original music by Philip Glass, this King Lear is a polished crown that could use a few more thorns.
138 West 48th Street, NYC
Through July 7
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor and chief critic. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.