Perhaps this production of King Lear was never going to live up to the story: after twenty-three years in Parliament, Glenda Jackson returned to acting with the most challenging Shakespearean role, typically reserved for actors of her caliber as a final achievement, one that spawns nostalgic reflections on a career that began with an historic performance of, say, Hamlet, or in this case, Ophelia. The performance and production were universally lauded. This is not that production.
A new director, Sam Gold, has substituted what was by all accounts a spartan revival for Broadway splash. The dominant color in Lear’s court is gold; a porcelain bulldog and lion straddle the throne. These choices, with their whiff of Art Deco, are no doubt topical, though never fully explored: the text, about the dissolution of ancient Britain, doesn’t really speak to our current political moment, and that’s okay. Not all our theater has to try and solve Trump. If it does, he wins.
In any case, this represents a pattern of weak decisions by Gold; one exception is the double casting of Ruth Wilson as both Cordelia and Lear’s Fool. It’s an intuitive choice since they are the only characters to openly challenge the king; indeed, “disputed stage tradition,” writes Marjorie Garber, holds that the same boy did, in fact, play both parts. Jackson, unsurprisingly, is superb, and her rolled rs, habitual scowl, and voice like a peal of thunder all belie her diminutive figure. Even as she “crawl[s] toward death,” she has absolute command of the stage. The rest of the cast is filled out with a laundry list of stage luminaries, from Jane Hondyshell (Gloucester) to John Douglas Thompson (Kent) to Matthew Maher (Oswald). But their performances, like the production as a whole, cannot ultimately pierce the haze of haphazard and inconsistent directorial decisions.