Glenda Jackson returns to the stage for the first time in decades for a star take on Shakespeare’s most tragic monarch

Photos: Manuel Harlan

King Lear

It’s been 25 years since double Academy Award-winning Glenda Jackson gave up acting for a life in politics. Now, at the age of 80, she’s taking on one of the Bard’s most heart-rending roles as the mad, ageing King Lear. And while she might have swapped parliament for plays, this plot is barely a step away from today’s dog-eat-dog political world.

The play begins with Lear dividing his kingdom between his three daughters. Yet when his youngest (and favourite), Cordelia, neglects to flatter him with overblown claims of devotion, he banishes her in a fit of pride and fury. What follows is a spotlight on Lear’s descent into madness as he realises his grave error, as his remaining ruling daughters strip him of his power and dignity.

King Lear

Set against a sparse, stark backdrop, the opening scene appears more like a rehearsal in a plastic chair-filled village hall, rather than Lear’s castle. Yet this minimalist look fails to conjure up any contemporary resonances in the way you’d expect. The costumes are modern too (the Fool, for example, is clad in a Superman costume). The king’s own look is androgynous, and this translates into Jackson’s portrayal: she doesn’t dress or talk ‘like a man’, and the script hasn’t been amended to accommodate the adjustment either. This makes it all the more powerful when she spits out curses of sterility at Goneril, such as ‘Dry up in her the organs of increase’. As Lear’s mind deteriorates, so too does his dress. By the end, Lear is clad in just a wet shirt and socks, exposing his frailty and vulnerability with striking poignancy. 

King Lear

It’s not all about Jackson. There are some big names on stage (Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks as Goneril and Regan, for example). Sargon Yelda impresses as Lear’s loyal former right-hand man, the Earl of Kent, and Rhys Ifans raises a smile as the Fool. But all pale in comparison with Jackson. Indeed, the dullest scenes are the ones where she is absent.

At three hours and 20 minutes, this is a long evening. Yet under Jackson’s reign, it doesn’t feel it. I’ve seen a few Lears in my time, and none compares to this. She’s ferocious and fragile, and utterly magnificent.

Until: 3 December 2016
Hospitality: The Old Vic’s café-bar Penny can be booked for semi-private drinks and canapé receptions. The theatre is also partnered with a number of restaurants that can cater for pre-theatre drinks and dinners
Eat & drink: Sea Containers at Mondrian London, Skylon, Mark’s Bar