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He Says: King Jackson in Lear

He Says: King Jackson in Lear

I’ve seen so many King Lears that I’m starting to feel exhausted by William Shakespeare’s devastatingly wise dissection of aging narcissism and human nature. I mean, how many times can I witness madness on the heath (I guess quite often), even as I worship its biting expansion and erratic contemplation on those very themes. With Lear, I always urge one to watch the Canadian series ‘Slings and Arrows‘ if you want to expand your understanding. Over three seasons, it relishes and explores the idea of the three stages of man, one age per season, as portrayed through Shakespeare’s finest, with Lear being the final season, quite naturally (Hamlet is Season one and Macbeth Season two). But one of my earliest memories of Shakespeare and theatre in general, was when on a school trip, I saw Peter Ustinov play King Lear at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the company ‘Slings and Arrows‘ tips its naughty hat to.  I can still picture the image of him barely standing half-naked on that thrust stage with the wind and the rain pounding him almost to the ground, and crouching at his feet, a scared but loyal Fool. It was riveting and one of those moments of theatre that solidified my fascination with its power and persuasiveness.

Glenda Jackson and Cast of King Lear. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Last year, the Royal Shakespeare Company brought their revered production to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.  Directed by the RSC’s artistic director, Gregory Doran (BAM’s King and Country), that production, first presented in 2016, starred the incomparable Sir Antony Sher, one of Britain’s most esteemed classical actors, tackling one of the last major male roles from Shakespeare’s catalogue that he had yet to play. Sher states that once you play Lear, there’s really “nowhere else to go, Shakespeare-wise“. The part is a solitary climb; a battle against time and importance; a ‘shouting at, arguing with, a storm”; the ultimate duel with a force of nature and existence.  It’s a part that requires no fear and a lot of humility.  It is, as Sher rightfully states, “the Everest of acting“. And even with all that, I found that production stiff and unrelenting even if Sher understood its majesty. He crowned the role with importance, a fitting idea for a man who is almost ready for his final bow but not quite ready to fade away.

Jayne Houdyshell, Glenda Jackson. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Sher basically got that part right, but I will add that he used the wrong gender, or should I say, he was being gender conformist at the time. Little did he know (or maybe he did, I’m not sure of the timing) that the real and true King of all Lears would be in the female form of the legendary actress, Glenda Jackson (Broadway’s Three Tall Women). And it would be this fearless and danger-seeking woman who would redefine what this role means, at least for me, giving it a life and an understanding that had evaded me up until now.

As directed by Sam Gold (Broadway’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, The Glass MenagerieFun Home), Jackson, alongside two other formidable women, Ruth Wilson (Broadway’s Constellations) and Jayne Houdyshell (Broadway’s The Humans) charges forth, playing their masculine parts with a force of nature that is truly outstanding and not to be missed. Jackson makes Lear more clear and comprehensible, even in those moments when you want to plead with the wind to make the elderly King see the mistake in his narrow-minded thinking, especially in what love and devotion of a daughter should look like.

Ruth Wilson & Cast of King Lear. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Wilson takes Cordelia and sets the tone of devotion beautifully and simplistically, but it is when she dons a smartly defined accent and hat as the King’s Fool, that this actress truly finds the light and dark within. There are a surprising number of lines, both by the Fool and the King, that make this partnership of two roles an obvious choice, and a wise one. Wilson, who was so darn good opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Constellations on Broadway a few years ago, makes the Fool a wise and spirited one. Houdyshell also shines in her blindingly good portrayal of the Earl of Gloucester whose foolishness is seen more clearly without the functionality of her own sight. And within the portrayal of the bastard Edmund, Pedro Pascal (PH’s Maple and Vine) filled with devilish charm, another slice of brilliance glowers with glee enticing us all within his grin. He’s far more engaging than his good and legitimate brother, Edgar, played with a bit too much earnestness by Sean Carvajal (Signature’s Jesus Hopped…) in the somewhat thankless part.

Pedro Pascal & Jane Houdyshell. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

The other sisters; Goneril, played forcibly by Elizabeth Marvel (Broadway’s Picnic) and Regan, oddly portrayed with extremes by Aisling O’Sullivan (BAM’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane) is where the classic tragedy starts to falter on that stark set by Miriam Buether (Broadway’s The Children). Dressed in oddly sparkly costumes by Ann Roth (Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird) the two are pushed to be seen as daring and aggressive but it feels flails in inauthentic posturing rather than the real ness coming from the other women as men. The blankness of the golden room is typical of Sam Gold’s productions, and it works, for the first Act, giving regale display to the proceedings, but out within the storm, the flat wall claustrophobically ensnares the lost wanderers. Corralled and trapped on a sliver of the stage front, the actors fight to find the truth, even as the structure minimizes the precarious place they find themselves. The lighting design by Jane Cox (Broadway’s Jitney) and the sound design by Scott Lehrer (Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!) Do their damnedest to save the scene, but I couldn’t clear my mind of that image of Ustinov being thrashed by the full force of nature’s demonic strength. I wanted the feeling of unprotected expanse and danger, and even with Jackson’s majestic rendering of that railing against the world, the bareness and vulnerability was lessened by the tight design.

Russell Harvard & Aisling O’Sullivan. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

John Douglas Thompson (Broadway’s Carousel) as the Earl of Kent, along with Dion Johnstone (Red Bull’s Coriolanus) as the Duke of Albany, Justin Cunningham (Sheen Center’s Little Rock) as the Duke of Burgundy and Ian Lassiter (Broadway’s JUNK) as the endearing King of France all deliver fine and convincing portraits. Matthew Maher (NYTW’s Othello) as Oswald, Goneril’s trusted servant is funny but distracting in his affect, almost as much as the musical string quartet wandering on and off stage in formal evening wear. Philip Glass’s (Einstein on the Beach) music is stunningly beautiful, but at so many moments the four were as distracting as the unsteady and formulaic destruction that litters the landscape.  Russell Harvard (PH’s I Was Most Alive With You) as Regan’s deaf husband, Duke of Cornwall, with American Signing done by his ‘Aide’, played by Michael Arden (director of Deaf west Theatre’s Spring Awakening) is a compelling idea that somehow feels more clumsy in its execution than wisely integrated.  Regan and her husband are both big and loud, lacking any subtlety in their characterizations, seemingly cruel and intense out of nowhere and for no real authentic reasons other than they are being directed to be thus.  The two have always been the worst house guests of all times, but here in Gold country, you wonder why the good Gloucester would ever let them through his door.

Ruth Wilson, Glenda Jackson, John Douglas Thompson. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

But these are minor qualms, as the show really belongs to the three woman who have taken on these male roles elevating them to godliness. Jackson is as daring an actor as any who have taken on this lion of a part. She rips it apart with clarity and passion, giving meaning and distinction at every turn.  She’s a force of nature, and a King among Kings in the history of this iconic play.

Glenda Jackson as King Lear. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

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My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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