“Is there a British equivalent for ‘machismo’?” asks the American.
“No. None at all,” replies his English friend, who then reconsiders: “Maybe Glenda Jackson.”
There are any number of quotes from King Lear that one might employ to kick off a discussion of how fully Glenda Jackson embodies William Shakespeare’s disintegrating ruler. “Every inch a King,” might do, though it is spoken ironically in Act IV, when things have fallen well apart. Rather, what came to mind not long into a viewing of director Sam Gold’s outstanding production of Lear now at New York’s Cort Theatre, was the bit of dialogue above, from Terrence McNally’s 1994 play Love! Valour! Compassion!. Machismo just begins to graze it. The tragedy of the mad king is a study of masculine power battling its own decline and Jackson, with self-ruinous male ego animating her wiry frame, feasts on the notoriously challenging role.
If there is any confusion, let’s clear up that this is no Queen Lear variation. Jackson and two other women take on significant male parts: Jayne Houdyshell as the Earl of Gloucester, and Ruth Wilson (doubling in the role of Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia) as the Fool. Outfitted in contemporary, monied male drag by costumer Ann Roth, the women don’t dress to pass for men; confident acting succeeds in completing their transformations.
Sam Gold, when he isn’t directing new works like the graphic-novel-turned-musical Fun Home, has become a specialist in finding meaningfully inventive staging of classics from Othello to The Glass Menagerie. Here, he has placed the action somewhere between the champagne late-’70s and an familiarly ostentatious present. Swords are guns, a prisoner’s stocks are rendered in duct tape, and the adulterous love triangle between Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund (Pedro Pascal) and Lear’s daughters Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan) is more sexed-up than you were probably taught in high school English class. This Lear holds court within soaring gilded walls in a room accented by a mirrored ceiling and ottoman-sized ceramic animals, all less suggestive of a British King’s castle than of the lobby in a grossly over-embellished New York apartment building. (Set design is by Miriam Buether.)
This is Broadway in 2019: Everything is a reminder of Donald J. Trump. You can hardly stage a play about a delusional autocrat these days without evoking him. There are lines that inevitably will resonate in our current situation: “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind,” says the Earl of Gloucester to weary sighs from the audience. But it is possible to be relevant without being specific, and Jackson does not waste a breath of her performance to conjure the man in the White House. She offers her own take on male frailty and hubris, her voice booming, her focus astonishing. If her gender enters into her portrayal at all, it is only fleetingly toward the end; it may be in the eye of this beholder, but a woman grieving a child registers differently from man facing the same catastrophe. It is an arguable point — as herself Jackson has noted in recent interviews, what is male or female becomes less distinct in our later years. You are more apt to remind yourself at some point during the three-and-a-half-hour show that Jackson, in retirement from a decades-long career in Britain’s parliament, now rails with convincing madness through Shakespeare’s storm on the heath eight times a week at the age of 82.
Composer Philip Glass — also 82, if we are keeping track — has written a new score for this production. Performed by an on-stage string quartet, it provides a suitably manic lullaby as each doomed character heads to his or her violent end. They are playing, still, when Lear’s realm is in ruins, lending a band-on-the-Titanic-deck pathos to the later scenes.
Worth mention in an overall solid cast is Broadway regular John Douglas Thomas as the Earl of Kent, who spends much of his time in disguise — his clarity in the dual role is appreciated. Also Jayne Houdyshell as Gloucester who, like Lear, is deceived by his children to tragic end; she provides a fine close harmony on those themes. The Duke of Cornwall is played with restrained anger by Russell Harvard (of TV’s Fargo), who is deaf and signs most of his dialogue. His words are spoken aloud by Michael Arden, in the role of the duke’s aide, who translates the other characters’ lines into ASL. (For deaf audience members, this provides only partial translation; Cornwall and his man are not in every scene.)
Ruth Wilson (The Affair) delights in playing the knowing Fool: She sings, she stomps on the furniture, she says what’s what, she manspreads. When portraying honest Cordelia, Wilson is, by contrast, contained and earnest. As Goneril and Regan, working hard in admittedly less forgiving roles, Marvel and O’Sullivan bring an era-appropriate sense of entitlement. Several actors, including Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones) as the deliciously deceptive Edmund, are making their Broadway debuts here, alongside what amounts to a masterclass in acting. For in the end — when the tuxedo is off and the diminished King is sporting pajamas and a floral crown — it is this returning veteran in the title role that makes this Lear memorable. A