A little over a week ago I was privileged to witness an amazing performance.
One of the main reasons for our trip to New York was to see a limited run production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, starring Glenda Jackson in the title role.
We got to see Ms. Jackson last year in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, and she truly is an international treasure, and an acting icon. She is so much of an acting legend that she took on the role of Lear (for the second time–she did it a few years ago in London) without gender-flipping it. This was not “Queen Lear.” She played Lear in drag, and I couldn’t imagine anyone doing a better job of it.
Due to the fantasy aspects of the story (it was based on a mythical King of pre-Arthurian times), this work lends itself well to diverse casting. Two other roles aside from Lear are performed by actors in drag: The Fool and The Earl of Gloucester. The cast is ethnically diverse and even included a deaf actor, and none of that detracted from this revelatory production of King Lear.
Lear is a tragedy with plenty of comic relief and shows the spiral of madness spurred by narcissism, vanity and duplicity. The story in a nutshell is that an aging King divides his Kingdom in three pieces, with plans to give one to each of his daughters. He asks each daughter to declare their love for him in order to see who gets the biggest piece.
The first two do so in a most insincere manner, but the third, his youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia, declines at first, then declares that she could only love him as a daughter does a father. Enraged by her lack of enthusiasm, he disowns her, and marries her off to a King in France, dividing her share between the other two daughters.
Later the King, who is losing his grasp on reality, is turned out by both daughters, and loses his knights, helped only by one loyal aide and the fool. His estranged youngest daughter comes to his rescue, but things go bad.
Spoiler Alert: To quote the wrestler Tracy Smothers (and who shouldn’t quote a wrestler when discussing Shakespeare?)…everybody dies.
While generally, the play IS the thing, in this case the performances raise it to a new level. The director, Sam Gold, has updated the setting to something not quite contemporary, but to a more relatable imaginary era. The set design is both austere and spectacular, if you can imagine that. A score is provided by musicians seen on stage for much of the time. It was composed by Philip Glass. The cast is world class, with not a weak link among them.
Aside from Glenda Jackson’s Lear, Jayne Houdyshell also pulls drag duty as The Earl of Gloucester, Lear’s compromised ally. Tony-nominee Ruth Wilson does a dual turn as both the youngest daughter, Cordelia, and in drag as a Chaplinesque Fool, who sticks with Lear almost to the end.
John Douglas Thompson is another standout as Lear’s loyal aide, The Earl of Kent. However, the entire cast is remarkable and really manages to keep this production at an astoundingly high level of quality.
I got the feeling, during this performance, that I was witnessing a production of Lear that will take on a legendary status. I have a feeling that people will be talking about this for years, and Glenda Jackson’s portrayal of King Lear will became the pinnacle to which other actors aspire. Her performance transcends gender, as do those of Wilson and Houdyshell.
King Lear is playing at The Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street in New York City until July 7.
After the show, your PopCulteer and his wife did something that we don’t normally do. We stuck around the stage door so that Melanie could meet some of her acting heroes. The wait was not in vain (although the lighting was far from ideal). Thanks to Ms Jackson for insisting that I get a photo.
That is today’s PopCulteer. Look for more of the New York Tour Diary all weekend long.