When other critics – some of them actually intelligent – pooh-poohed Sam Gold’s radical stagings of Shakespeare, I stood by him. His claustrophobic, militarized Othello, in which even Desdemona wore fatigues? I thought it was the most potent take on the tragedy I’d seen. His hushed, anti-theatrical Hamlet, which eschewed histrionics and psychology for a close, patient reading of the text? I leaned forward, hearing timeworn passages ring with shocking clarity. And now we come to King Lear. This much-hyped Broadway production stars stage and screen veteran Glenda Jackson as the vain, rash title monarch. And she gives a vain, rash performance from start to finish. It gives me no joy to report that Jackson and the production are both superficial, incoherent and emotionally dead. Worst of all, the whole affair’s boring. I remain excited about this director’s future output. But clearly, all that’s Gold does not glitter.
Miriam Buether’s inert, pretentious set is a vast golden room. If Trump owned a grain silo, this would be it. The actors are a transatlantic hodge-podge. The sisters are American, Irish and English – Elizabeth Marvel’s Goneril, Aisling O’Sullivan’s Regan, and Ruth Wilson’s Cordelia. Normally I wouldn’t notice mismatched accents in Shakespeare; only an ignoramus expects realism in a 400-year-old Jacobean tragedy. But there’s so little dramaturgical rigor, surface inconsistencies start to assume greater importance in your irritated mind. Jackson’s Lear enters in a tuxedo, short hair slicked back. Is she a woman dressed as a man? Or do we just accept her as him? Oh, and why is that string quartet following everyone around?
You might have heard that composer Philip Glass wrote lilting music to be played here and there. The music is nice but inconsequential, its placement at key moments distracting, and the presence of musicians onstage is awkward at best. Like so much in this status-conscious enterprise, the element’s there for prestige, not meaning. If there is an obscure allusion, it might be to the doomed instrumentalists on board the Titanic. They kept playing as the ship (of state) went down. Just like this Lear. Gold’s aloof, anemic direction leeches momentum and passion from each scene. Yes, Shakespeare created a brutal world of wealthy psychopaths, young preying on old, and vice versa – we already knew that.
Let’s take a moment to salute what works. Stage veteran John Douglas Thompson is doing admirable work as Lear’s stalwart supporter Kent. Russell Harvard, a deaf performer, is virile and full-bodied as the sadistic Duke of Cornwall (he who plucks out Gloucester’s eyes). Pedro Pascal gives the long three-and-a-half hours its few laughs as the dryly amoral bastard Edmund.
And Ruth Wilson, doing double duty as Cordelia and the Fool, is a wonder. The Fool’s endless wisecracks and songs – mocking Lear for dividing his kingdom among his daughters – are still completely unfunny. It’s a massively difficult role for any actor, trying to wring laughs from those ancient puns and cryptic gags. But Wilson, adopting a nasal Cockney bray and doing the occasional bit of slapstick, does a superb music-hall comedian. Later in the play, her Cordelia is steely, keen and no sap. Of all the actors up there, giving Jackson a wide berth and trying to prop up their weakly directed scenes, Wilson’s vitality and specificity keeps the audience engaged. I’d rather see her do Lear, and Jackson take on the “bitter fool.”
Because bitterness – acrid, venomous, face-twisting bitterness – seems to be the default mode that Jackson has chosen. Some of my colleagues have damned the production but praised Jackson, but that’s a cop out. Jackson was truly excellent last season in the revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, but all she had to do was stand, sit, be cruel and deliver Albee’s glittering, cool badinage. This is an acting challenge – hell, a moral challenge – of a much higher caliber. Absent are grace notes of humility and wonder, especially in Lear’s famous post-storm scenes with the despairing, eyeless Gloucester or his heartbreaking reconciliation with Cordelia. Jackson barks, screeches, spits and rolls her "r"s – but I felt I was watching a solipsistic recitation, not a fleshed-out persona. This is the most hateful and unredeemed Lear I’ve ever seen, a product of Jackson doing the old-school British “acting from the neck up” and some innate inability to connect with the monarch’s vulnerability and basic humanity.
New York theatergoers know that King Lear has been tediously ubiquitous in the past decade. Every actor of a certain age must have a go. Ian McKellen, Frank Langella, Kevin Kline, Sam Waterson, Antony Sher, John Lithgow, Derek Jacobi and others have all howled into the storm. You know what would be radical? Lear played by an actor – male, female or trans – who is young enough to give a dynamic physical performance, and carry the dead Cordelia onstage in their arms at the end. I don’t want to sound ageist, but instead of treating the role as a valedictory prize for living into your 70s or 80s, cast it for the poetry and the passion, with or without makeup, to shake the heavens and crack open hearts. Under that condition, I’d even go back to see Gold direct it.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.