King Lear review: Glenda Jackson returns to the stage as Shakespeare’s tragic hero

It's been a long wait to see the former Labour MP take to the stage again, but it's worth it finds Nick Wells

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4.0 out of 5 star rating

The last time Glenda Jackson took to the stage, if you wanted to read the online review you’d’ve have been disappointed, or clairvoyant.

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For it wasn’t until the end of that year that the first web site was created, at CERN, where they smash bits of the universe together. And if things’ve changed a bit in the intervening 25 years, the 80 year-old’s acting abilities certainly haven’t. And the former Labour MP’s triumphant return to The Old Vic in one of theatre’s most demanding roles is every bit as thrilling.

In a striking gender-blind performance she slips uncannily between lucidity and madness, serenity and volatility. There’s a musicality to her voice, as it lilts naturally – high and whimsical one moment, forceful and acerbic the next. There’s even the comic sight of her shambling around the stage in just a shirt, seeking enlightened advice from a man dressed in only a strategical placed bin bag.

It’s an irony that her thoroughly convincing depiction of declining authority and loosening of the mind in old age only goes to disprove the prevailing idea that advancing years are an unfortunate but unavoidable hindrance to ability. She could not be more suited to the role. And with any hope, it may lead the way to an opening up to more such roles for older actresses.

Jane Horrocks and Celia Imrie are suitably barbed as the wicked pair of Regan and Goneril, the King’s daughters who, having been asked to prove their devotion to him, quickly strip him of any vestiges of his stately position once they have earned their share of his kingdom. Both blend hard-nosed shrewdness with a virulent sexuality well.

Morfydd Clark’s Cordelia, angrily disowned by her father after her less gushing display for his affections, contrastingly has a plainer, more innocent honesty to her. And Rhys Ifans offers a heart-warming comic touch as the fool. Half-dressed in a superman onesie, he at turns both and dons a clown mask and breaks into a rendition of Bob Dylan, as he proves to be the only person who can talk honestly to his master and tell it like it really is.

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Rhys Ifans in King Lear at The Old Vic (photos by Manuel Harlan)

The modern dress production offers some new and creative backdrops to the well-known tragedy. Set against a sparse stripped-back set consisting of simple white boards, they turn and fall to create simple but effective transitions between scenes. The storm through which the King, scorned by two of his daughters, lumbers is created using a seemingly giant, billowing black bin bag, which ripples and bulges across the stage.

Deborah Warner’s production is a distinctive take on Lear that rattles through its three hour-plus running time. And if it proves to be the last stage role in what has been a glittering acting career, it will have been a very fine one indeed.

King Lear is at the Old Vic until 3 December


 Book tickets for King Lear from the Radio Times box office


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