It's been the year of the Lear. Shakespeare's plays seem to move in and out of the present moment like moons orbiting planets, and perhaps there is something in Lear's uncompromising portrait of a nation pitilessly divided against itself that makes it feel particularly ascendant in this most awful, divisive of years. There have been at least five major revivals, including a perfunctory Michael Pennington at Northampton and a shattering Don Warrington for Talawa. I didn't see Timothy West at Bristol, but by all accounts he was exceptionally moving. There is Anthony Sher at the RSC – which I reviewed here as well. But by far the most eye catching was the 80-year-old Glenda Jackson, not just because of her gender but because she's spent the last 25 years not on stage but as a back bench Labour MP.
Deborah Warner's production at the Old Vic is different from every Lear I've seen before. It makes no concession to any notion of a recognisable England, either in time or outside it. Instead, the mammoth Old Vic stage has been opened up right to the back with the only set a series of white movable boards, like those found inside a rehearsal or film studio. The mood is defamiliarised, stripped out, provisional. Stagehands are consistently visible. The ceremonial baggage, both theatrical and cultural, that invariably attends most revivals of this play, has gone.
You expect Jackson's Lear to be physically diminutive, of course, but not much can prepare you for the sheer disparity between her bird-bone frame and that vast, iron-hewn voice, so commanding, eviscerating and terrible. Her Lear is bitterly self aware, but also tyrannical, unpredictable, bloody minded and, crucially, startlingly compassionate. If Lear as a play stands or falls on that single moment when the dying King enters with a prostrate Cordelia, then Jackson in her grief is almost unbearable. Her gender makes no meaningful difference in this production to the play, yet when her Lear spits out the curse of infertility on Lear's daughter Goneril, the fact that these words are spoken by a woman makes you hear their savagery anew.
Warner's production is chilly, bitter and dislocated – a series of jaggedly hewn scenes that, Jackson's extraordinary performance notwithstanding, never get anywhere near touching the pathos in the play, and perhaps deliberately so. The Brechtian touches, with surtitles announcing each scene, add to the mood of wanton disconnect. The storm scene, however, is magnificent – a strobe-lighting-fuelled headache cast from billowing black plastic and monochrome video projections.
The supporting cast is a discordant bunch. There's a conspicuous lack of emotional and visual relationship between them, almost as though each has stepped out of different productions. Karl Johnson's Gloucester is frustratingly peripheral. Simon Mayonda's flippant, sketchily inhabited Edmund inexplicably keeps mooning at the audience. But Rhys Ifans is a particularly wonderful Fool, his soul as battered, heroic and sorrowful as the tattered Superman cape hanging from his shoulders and whom we last glimpse asleep and forgotten in a supermarket trolley. Jane Horrocks' punky Regan in killer heels and skinny jeans feels dangerously skittish. Celia Imrie's mumsy Goneril is almost her complete opposite: an angsty, suburban office worker type in ill-fitting trouser suit. There's a bleakly funny moment when, after Regan's death by poisoning, she gets out the marigolds. And while many critics thought the way Regan threw Gloucester's eyeball into the audience verged on pantomime, I found it grotesquely, powerfully horrible.
In the end it's tempting to suspect Warner's brutalist production would be little without Jackson. Yet you can't say the same for Jackson who, in this mother of all comebacks, unquestionably makes this show her own.