Acting legend Glenda Jackson on playing King Lear and her fight against ageism

The former MP wowed the West End playing Lear at 80, now Glenda Jackson wants older people to stand up and be noticed

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Glenda Jackson does not do things by halves. After 35 years on stage and screen, she stepped away in 1992 to become a Labour MP. Then last year, at 80, she came back to the stage: not cautiously dipping a toe in the water, but as King Lear – not only one of Shakespeare’s great male characters, but one of theatre’s most immense, strenuous, emotionally and physically draining parts.

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She filled the Old Vic with emotional power and blew the critics away. Now she’s a hot tip for the best actress Olivier Award – it will go down in history as one of the great unlikely comebacks, as if Ronald Reagan at 80 had suddenly returned to the screen and triumphed as Annie Oakley.

Jackson’s vigour in Parliament was legendary, first as a passionate anti-Thatcher activist, then calling for Tony Blair’s resignation over Iraq, accusing him in Shakespearian language of “the insolence of office”, and savaging Iain Duncan Smith over welfare.

Add her storming Lear and you expect to meet an aura of power and anger: thrilling but unnerving.

It doesn’t happen. Glenda Jackson is no diva: arriving by bus, submitting to “hair-and-makeup” for the photoshoot without bothering to look in a mirror, then settling down in a spare dressing room, emanating relaxed friendliness.

The ferocity was for Parliament, the high emotion for the stage. And self-importance is rarer in actors than you’d think: “The egos you meet in the corridors of power would not be tolerated for 30 seconds in professional theatre,” she reflects. “They simply wouldn’t.”

Perhaps her sunny mood is pure pleasure in being back in her old tribe, the theatre community she renounced in 1992. When the Critics’ Circle gave her the best Shakespearean performance award in January many of us expected her acceptance speech to be a bit political. Not a bit of it: graceful and witty, she seemed more like someone coming home.

“One of the amazing things about theatre people,” she says now, “is that you might not see each other for years, and then when you do it’s as if you’d just walked into the room again on the same day. Maybe it’s the vagaries of being rarely employed – and castigated as well as praised.

“I have yet to meet an actor who is not firmly convinced that the moment the present job finishes they will be unemployed. Vulnerability is always there.”

Did she go to the theatre in those Parliamentary years? “No, there were late-night sittings, and the constituency. I wasn’t ever a big go-er to the theatre. I liked working in it and the people in it, very much. But I always used to be irritated by the interval. Acting for me exists only when you’re doing it, so there was nothing to miss.

“I didn’t expect to be selected but I was, and had to learn to be a Member of Parliament. For months I would be stopping and saying, ‘Where am I?’ And the actual business of the chamber had to be learnt, as well as the really important stuff, which was the constituency. Constituents are the only people I miss.”

That sense of togetherness recurs all through the conversation. The part of King Lear is central, and her journey through it was breathtaking: archly parental at first, pompous and kingly, swaggering and cursing in rage, tender with the Fool, writhing in madness then finally helpless – “a foolish fond old man”, valiant and loving in defeat.

I wondered whether Parliament taught her Lear-ish qualities. She demurs. “You’re powerless, lucky as a backbencher if you get caught for a question or a speech. Even as PM you have to be able to bring people together, not just party political opposites but people with completely different and deeply held views about how the world should be run. Not that you’d know it right now.”

The party she served is now changed and fairly chaotic under Jeremy Corbyn: would she not want to be part of the moderate cadre? “No, the political landscape is so dystopian that it is difficult to think how you can positively engage with it, even as a citizen. It’s just bizarre. And I don’t know whether that’s true exclusively of the Labour Party.

“For a long period of time all politicians simply were not listening to what people were telling them. So now the electorate starts to say, ‘Oh, a plague on all your houses, I’m not bothering’.

“The issues we were hearing on the doorstep were not being even acknowledged by all the political parties – with the possible exception of Ukip – and that’s where we are now. Nature abhors a vacuum, it will always be filled with something worse. And now it is being.

“In a way, the best politics and best theatre are trying to answer the same questions – who are we, why are we, how do you create a society where there is genuine acknowledgement of the individuality of every single person on this Earth? How can we work and live together with those differences between us as individuals? The really good end of both theatre and politics is just trying to show us how difficult it is.”

The age of Brexit, Trump and terrorism is “a new landscape,” she says, “and I get the feeling nobody knows what to do. Not at all.” But the idea of pessimism and “remoaners” meets an appalled snort.

“No! I was raised by women who knew that things happen and you just suck it up! If you didn’t work you didn’t eat, so you just go on. What’s happening in the world is going to be difficult, but we’re not all going to disappear. We will have to adapt.

“And I don’t have any truck with this mindset that says, ‘Oh, we will be going back to a better country.’ I remember what it was like in the 50s, and I don’t have rose-tinted spectacles. You can’t reinstitute the limited priorities of those decades. But picking at the same scab and moaning isn’t going to do anything.”

Lear is a daunting part to do seven times a week at the age of 80. “Yes. What really worried me was that I wouldn’t have the physical or vocal strength. But the best gym in the world is Shakespeare. What really kicks you into shape is the play itself: there’s such energy in it that it sort of feeds you. The times I felt most tired were Sundays when we didn’t have to do it.”

Playing Lear, by the way, did not seem to her to be about gender-bending. More about age. “What I find really interesting about getting older is that those gender-defining barriers begin to fray. They get mistier, less absolute. We are not stuck in the business of how men and women react differently.”

On the general subject of parts for women she is saltier. “I cannot understand why creative writers do not find women interesting. Even contemporary ones. Men are still almost invariably the dramatic engine, women on the sidelines. In film, there was a period when really the only reason to have a woman was to show that the guy wasn’t gay.”

She can’t be bothered with romantic plays and novels (except Jane Austen “because that is about economic and social things”) and gets impatient with tales of young love: “Why don’t they just get on with life. One loses patience as one gets older.”

As for future roles, I urge her to go for Shylock (“But I hate the play!”) or Prospero. But she just says: “It would be nice if someone sent me a contemporary play with an old person in it that wasn’t just about old age.”

Being an octogenarian, though, has its compensations. “I once said blithely that when I finished being an MP I was going to form an old people’s robbery group. Everybody ignores old people so we could shoplift and burgle till the cows come home. It still comes as a shock to me when somebody stands up and offers me their seat on the bus or the Tube.”

Does she accept? “If I’m not getting off at the next stop I gracefully say thank you. But two things I find amazing about being old. One is realising how little I know… it just astonishes me. The more you live, the bigger the library of stuff you don’t know. The other thing is that the internal you doesn’t change. It’s the external envelope that won’t obey orders as quickly as you would like. You bend down to pull up a weed and your knees don’t want to get up.”

She is horrified when I suggest the House of Lords – “I don’t believe in an appointed Lords.” As for the backbench, frustrating years when her talent was lost to theatre she robustly claims: “No regrets. Anything I could have done that was legal to get rid of Margaret Thatcher, I was prepared to do. And it is an incredible privilege to be a member of Parliament. People put their X next to your name, give you that trust, hand over to you, it’s a great and humbling thing.”

She pauses, thoughtful, and then laughs. “Of course, you then have to tackle the reality of people, and regulation and laws, and things you deeply, deeply disagree with. You have to acknowledge the fact that people you thought were on the right track are going down the wrong one. But you get on with the job. I was brought up with a very strong work ethic.”

You bet she was. Glenda Jackson isn’t done yet.

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