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Reviewed by:
  • King Learby Cort Theater
  • Justin B. Hopkins
King LearPresented at the Cort Theater, New York City. 04 4– 07 7, 2019. Directed by Sam Gold. Set design by Miriam Buether. Costumes by Ann Roth. Lighting by Jane Cox. Sound by Scott Lehrer. Original music by Philip Glass. With Michael Arden (Aide to Cornwall), Sean Carvajal (Edgar), Russell Harvard (Duke of Cornwall), Jayne Houdyshell (Earl of Gloucester), Glenda Jackson (King Lear), Dion Johnstone (Duke of Albany), Matthew Mahler (Oswald), Elizabeth Marvel (Goneril), Aisling O'Sullivan (Regan), Pedro Pascal (Edmund), John Douglas Thompson (Earl of Kent), Ruth Wilson (Cordelia/Fool), and others.

There is no doubt that Glenda Jackson is a consummate actor. Striding onto the stage as King Lear, ignoring and speaking over the customary (and obnoxious) Broadway entrance applause for stars, her voice and presence filled the theater with no apparent effort on her part. Every line—each syllable, even—sounded invested with intention, from the sarcastically elongated "loooong in our court" (1.1.47) to the disgusted juxtaposition of consonants in "embossed carbuncle" (2.4.413) to the quick, grim simplicity of "thou'lt come no more" (5.3.306). I cannot remember a more powerful presentation of control on stage. But what Jackson's performance provided in terms of power and control, it lacked in the vulnerability and weakness that—to me, at least—renders Lear human, and truly tragic. [End Page 432]

Jackson's Lear banished Kent and Cordelia with relative calm, almost more annoyed than angry. Gradually, the monarch grew to grudging, but still measured displeasure at Goneril and Regan's betrayal. When Jackson slammed her fist on the table before "O, reason not the need" (2.2.453) Lear seemed to let go, but only briefly. Shouting against the storm, Jackson's vocal prowess and physical stillness impressed me, but her emotional impassivity offered little with which to empathize. There were moments when her stern, imposing façade faded, but only when she was asleep, either in the hovel—curled into a fetal position—or wheeled in, twitching as if in a bad dream, to confront Cordelia in 4.7. Even in madness, wearing pajamas and using silly voices, she still inspired awe more than anything else.

Director Sam Gold seemed deliberately to downplay the significance of his casting of Jackson as Lear as well as Jayne Houdyshell as Gloucester. Neither Lear nor Gloucester presented as either particularly masculine or feminine. Their hair was cut short, and they wore tuxedos, but neither of those visual cues are out of the ordinary for any gender identity in contemporary Western culture (the obvious setting of this production). Neither actor had adjusted voice. When Lear decried "women's weapons, water-drops" (2.2.466), Jackson said the line straightforwardly, without irony. Likewise, when Gloucester protested about Edgar, "He cannot be such a monster […] To his father, that so tenderly and entirely loves him" (1.2.94-96), I was struck chiefly by Houdyshell's sad sincerity. There was none of the anger I often hear in the delivery of these words. It is possible to attribute stereotypical femininity to this softness, just as one could associate masculinity with Lear's dominant demeanor. However, overall I had more of an impression of androgyny, the absence rather than any emphasis of gendered significance.

The world that this Lear dominated was as grandiose as the king. Miriam Buether's set featured gold-gilt-wall-to-gold-gilt-wall royal purple carpeting, imposing flagpoles, gleaming wooden tables, and statues of a lion and bulldog on either side of a deep-seated leather throne. The glittering and glossy extravagance of these trappings (supplemented by Ann Roth's sumptuous costuming, and blasted by Jane Cox's bright lights) contrasted with the chaotic scattering of debris across the stage after the intermission. The idea was obviously to illustrate the descent from Lear's royalty to disenfranchisement, but such a drastic (and predictable) change came across as an attempt to compensate for the lack of Lear's character arc in Jackson's performance. Similarly, Philip Glass's strident score, while skillfully played by the string quartet, frequently drowned out dialogue and speeches...


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