theater review

Theater Review: Once More Into the Storm With King Lear

John Douglas Thompson and Glenda Jackson in King Lear. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

There is a tragedy happening at the Cort Theatre, but it’s not the tragedy of a rash and overweening British king, his three daughters, and the gaping maw of violent nihilism opened up by his childish demand that they turn their love for him into a competition. It’s not the tragedy of a great king gone mad but rather of a great play that’s lost its wits and its way. After a royal amount of hype built on the promise of the towering Glenda Jackson’s role-defining performance, the painful truth is that Sam Gold’s King Lear is a hot, heavy mess. And more painful still, Jackson’s Lear fails to transcend it.

From the distracting, almost sloppy mishmash of modern costumes by Ann Roth to Miriam Buether’s misguidedly Trumpish garish golden cube of a set, the production feels aesthetically off-track from the very beginning, somehow both leaden and untethered. But it’s Gold’s staging of the play’s crucial first scene — in which the aging Lear proposes to divide up his kingdom and ends up cursing and banishing his one truly loving daughter — that really points to trouble. Whenever possible, Gold seems to be pushing his actors to play for laughs — not the deep, shaded laughter that might bubble up naturally while witnessing the cruelties and struggles human beings enact on “this great stage of fools,” but easy chuckles, the kind that pander to an audience and kneecap a text with mistrust. When Jackson’s Lear — whose styling makes her look a bit like Zorro in his Don Diego de la Vega form — asks the fateful question of his daughters (“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”), Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) rises to her feet with a nervous smirk and an extended “Wellllllll” that asks for our giggles before she launches into her line: “I love you more than words can wield the matter.” Never mind that the first word of that line isn’t actually “Well” but “Sir” — anything for a joke.

Marvel’s Goneril and Aisling O’Sullivan’s Regan quickly fall into the motiveless malignity trap that can afflict Lear’s elder daughters when they’re played as straight antagonists — basically, as conniving bitches — rather than long-suffering women whose very real grievances have corrupted their hearts. Neither seems to have been asked for more than a strong affect, and so Marvel plays superior and slippery and a little nuts while O’Sullivan leans into a kind of babyish brooding. She’s equally prone to blubbering against the shoulder of her strapping, vicious husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Russell Harvard), as she is to fits of scream-y, sadistic rage. Even Ruth Wilson — a remarkable actor with a compelling streak of eerie weirdness — can’t quite find her feet as Cordelia. She too has been stripped of her full emotional range in the play’s opening scene. When Lear turns to her, seeking a declaration of love as obsequious as those of her sisters, her ominous, honest “Nothing, my lord” comes off as the reply of a surly teenager, instead of a great risk taken by a vulnerable, courageous woman. Rather than making an open-hearted stand, an attempt to tear the scales from her father’s eyes, she seems simply to want to get in a dig at her siblings. She holds her ground against Lear’s wrath because the scene demands it, but the fire of integrity that burns inside her has been doused by Gold’s skittishness with the text and his retreats into cheap comedy.

As the play trudges forward, very few actors make it out alive. Gold is dealing with a breadth of comfort levels among his actors when it comes to shaping and inhabiting Shakespeare’s language, and he’s failed to forge his ensemble into a united front, all living in the same world and speaking with the same nuance and force of feeling. He makes yet another joke out of Matthew Maher’s oily, unsympathetic Oswald, whose eventual death is played simply as farce, and though Wilson is making an intrepid attack on an infamously difficult role in her double-casting as Lear’s fool, she isn’t allowed to find depth of character so much as she’s encouraged to go for gimmick. Her Fool is a kind of Ricky-Gervais-meets-the-Artful-Dodger in Charlie Chaplin’s clothing, and Gold has her do a lot of self-deprecating half-chuckles at her own jokes, the kind that say to an audience, “We both know this is obscure and not funny.” It all feels empty, riddled with deflated, would-be cleverness — as when Wilson removes a braid of human hair from the Fool’s fanny pack and plays with it, seeming to suggest that perhaps the Fool is Cordelia, newly shorn and in disguise just like the loyal Kent. He’s not. Underneath the production’s winks and nods, there’s nothing there — meanwhile, the play languishes somewhere in the wings.

Most distressing of all, Jackson, for all her innate and palpable power, isn’t saving it. Her prodigious craftsmanship is on display, but next to her fellow actors — mostly Americans who would probably be caught dead before rolling the ‘r’ in the word “recreant” — she comes off as declamatory in the extreme. “Good sentences and well pronounced,” as Shakespeare might put it, but all their humanity masked in force and flourish. She’s got a tendency to hold forth without varying her tempo, which gives a lulling effect to many of Lear’s speeches, blurring together the specific harsh cruelties or philosophical subtleties being expressed. Shockingly, she seems cut off from her emotional center. Is her Lear wounded by what he perceives as Cordelia’s betrayal? Is he shaken to the core with guilty terror when he realizes the deadly mistake he’s made? Is he overcome by her eventual forgiveness, reduced to his most pitiable state, broken and ashamed and yet remade? Perhaps he is, but I can’t feel it. There’s an upsetting phenomenon that sometimes takes hold when women play Shakespeare’s “great male” roles: A kind of overcompensation can occur, a subconscious shift away from those qualities stereotypically considered “feminine” — gentleness, softness, vulnerability, open emotionality — but in truth just as vital to the portrayal of a full human being. I don’t know if Gold and Jackson are suffering this particular kind of interpretive limitation, but whatever the case, Jackson’s Lear is largely a creature of rhetoric — “thunder, nothing but thunder.” She might have the varnish of a complete man, but the depths remain invisible.

It’s not all on her: She’s being unforgivably undermined by the soundtrack. Philip Glass wrote original music for this production, and a string quartet is almost always onstage, sawing away underneath Jackson and her fellow actors, especially whenever they have anything particularly intense or meaningful to say. Again, Gold cuts the legs out from under his ensemble with a mistrust in their ability — and the play’s — to speak for themselves. The constant monotonous underscoring is infuriating. Rather than heightening the text, it virtually eliminates our ability to engage with it. It’s no wonder that, if you watch Jackson’s cast-mates during the long stretches when the king is raging and the violins are buzzing, they’ve got that frozen, forced-listening look on their faces. They’re not living the play, they’re waiting it out.

The exceptions are John Douglas Thompson’s upright, reliable Kent — a courtier of Lear’s who, like Cordelia, suffers banishment for daring to speak truth, and resolves to go on serving and protecting his king in disguise — and Jayne Houdyshell’s heartfelt Earl of Gloucester. Gloucester reigns over the play’s B-plot, a tale of parental blindness and filial loyalty and cruelty that provides a foil for Lear’s own travails, and as the duped earl, Houdyshell is single-handedly responsible for almost all of the play’s most affecting moments. In the gorgeous scene late in the action where the two old men meet — Gloucester now literally blind and Lear babbling and crowned with flowers — it’s Houdyshell who’s riveting to watch. She’s actually feeling up there, and when the play’s language is coming out of her mouth, it’s the visceral, tangible vehicle for that feeling.

Not so for Gloucester’s son Edgar, who, in Sean Carvajal’s hands, is lost at sea. In Edgar’s high-stakes moments — as when he’s fleeing his father’s house, tricked by the nefarious plotting of his bastard brother Edmund (Pedro Pascal) — Carvajal seems to be furiously treading water, and when the character waxes poetic, his cadences creep dangerously close to stoner territory. Pascal fares better: He’s got a sly, slump-shouldered louche-ness about him and a free, casual approach to Edmund’s villainy. But the glaze of ease in his performance preempts a sense of Edmund’s savage ambition, of the full weight of his resentment, and the horrible lengths to which he’s willing to go to feel powerful.

As with so many of the play’s actors, he’s ultimately a victim of his director’s hodgepodge of half gestures. Gold — who, in the first production I ever wrote about for this magazine, conveyed a sharp personal connection to Hamlet, a point of view and something to say — here seems overmatched, splashing around in Lear’s shallows, never venturing past the breakers. He’s resorting to familiar theatrical vocabulary: It’s not hard to tell that Buether’s lavish gold banquet chamber will eventually crumble into chaos, its furnishings providing whatever objects or locations the story calls for. But not only does that chaos (mostly accomplished safely during intermission) feel contrived; it also limits the play’s vast scale with claustrophobic, over-specific geography, meanwhile obscuring its psychological preoccupation with emptiness. Why cram Lear full of junk when the play so brutally meditates on the void, stripping its protagonist down to “unaccommodated man”? Additionally, with no readable change in time, place, or circumstance communicated at the end of the play’s first scene — its shift from the Lear plot to the Gloucester plot — the story loses scope. It stops feeling like the cataclysmic decay of a nation and starts to feel like one very long, very unfortunate dinner party.

Jackson first played Lear in 2016 at London’s Old Vic, in a production directed by Deborah Warner that the Times’ Parul Sehgal described as “austere, Brechtian and British, with a sly indictment of Blairism.” I often found myself wishing I were watching that production, but the truth is that austerity and luxury are only trappings: The thing itself — the poor, bare, forked animal and the awesome, untameable beast — has got to have a beating, bleeding heart. But nearly all the pathos of this King Lear lies in the haphazard wreckage of the production that could have been. Blurry and superficial, the shape of power without its impact, the production that is little more than Lear’s shadow.

King Lear is at the Cort Theatre.

*A version of this article appears in the April 15, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Theater Review: Once More Into the Storm With King Lear