The theater director Sam Gold has become the go-to guy for powerfully spare productions that forgo showy stage tricks to put the focus on the writing and the acting: Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-winning The Flick; a radically stripped-down The Glass Menagerie; the Tony-winning chamber musical Fun Home. Two seasons ago, Gold staged a thrilling (and acclaimed) production of Othello starring Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo and followed up with an intimate take on Hamlet starring Oscar Isaac. Since then, he has vowed to mount all Shakespeare’s tragedies. “They’ve just become kind of the only thing I want to do,” Gold says. “They’re such challenges for a director, and they’re the greatest roles for the greatest actors. And when you have the opportunity to work with the best actors, you want to give them a huge meal.”
This month, Gold is serving up what he calls “the greatest feast there is”—that would be King Lear—to one of our finest living actors, Glenda Jackson, who at 82 leads a stellar cast—including Ruth Wilson, Elizabeth Marvel, and Jayne Houdyshell—in Jackson’s return to Broadway after last season’s Tony-winning triumph in Edward Albee’s Three Tall -Women. She is the latest in a long line of acting titans to conquer Lear, from Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, and Paul Scofield to Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, and Simon Russell Beale. “This is a perfect meeting of actor and role,” Gold says. “Who else carries that much power at that age and has that much capacity for all the layers of experience that this character gets put through? She’s fiercely intelligent, she knows how to argue, and she knows how to make that argument hurt—all things that are very true of King Lear. But there’s also a capacity in her performances for a kind of cruelty that audiences love to watch.”
Audiences have been fixing a rapt gaze on Jackson ever since she electrified the West End (and, later, Broadway) as a homicidal madwoman in Peter Brook’s notorious 1964 staging of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. She famously lashed de Sade with her hair, thus setting the tone for her on-screen -relationships with her leading men in such films as Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), in which she plays a ruthless libertine who drives Oliver Reed’s character to suicide. With her off-kilter beauty, Jackson seemed an unlikely movie star, but her elegance, charisma, and emotional sinew made her an icon of the ’70s screen, earning her Oscars for her performances in Women in Love and the bittersweet 1973 romantic comedy A Touch of Class, along with a BAFTA for Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971).
In 1992, incensed by the cruel policies of Margaret Thatcher, Jackson left behind a thriving acting career for politics, serving as a Labour party MP in the House of Commons for 23 years. After retiring in 2015 she traveled to Barcelona, where she saw a production of King Lear starring her friend, the legendary Catalan actress Núria Espert, who suggested that Jackson take a crack at the role. “My honest reaction was, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ” Jackson says. “?‘They’d never allow me to do this in England. A woman playing Lear?’ ” Soon, though, Matthew Warchus offered her a chance to do just that in a modern-dress production directed by Deborah Warner at London’s Old Vic. It was a triumph, earning Jackson critical rapture and an Evening Standard Theatre Award—which, unlike her Oscars, she even showed up to accept, tut-tutting the standing ovation she received and puckishly noting, “When I was feeding myself by being a professional actress, I never got a good notice in The Evening Standard.”
In her ninth decade, Jackson remains a formidable presence—slim, straight, steely-eyed, with a sonorous voice that could cut glass. Still, Lear is a daunting challenge for any actor, much less one who has been away from the stage for a quarter-century. When I ask her why she wanted to take on such a huge part for her return, she turns into a headmistress explaining the obvious to a willfully obtuse schoolboy. “I’ve never been in a position where there have been parts I’ve wanted to play—like most actors, you wait to see what comes through the door and what people offer you,” she says. “But it is such an extraordinary play. And one of the things that I became aware of during the time that I was a member of Parliament—because I visited nursing homes and old people’s homes over the years—was that the kinds of boundaries we are taught to believe create the different genders begin to fracture, to fray, the older we get. And I thought that was very useful in trying to play Lear.”
I probably should have known better than to ask Jackson whether she was excited to revisit the play with a new director and cast. “I’m not revisiting the play,” she snaps. “I’m discovering it, hopefully.” That discovery includes having to relearn her lines. “I have to sit down every night and go through the whole bloody script again,” she says. She has also been swimming laps in the pool at the hotel where she’s staying in New York to build up, as she puts it, “sufficient physical and vocal power for the part.”
Jackson will need the stamina to tackle Shakespeare’s most monumental tragedy, pitch-black to the point of nihilism, in which she plays the aging King Lear, who, she says, “has made up his mind that he’s going to crawl towards death, enjoy his life, and live it with as little responsibility as he can possibly garner.” To that end, he steps down from the throne to divide his kingdom among his three daughters—but when his favorite, Cordelia, refuses to follow in the footsteps of her two-faced sisters and lavish him with false flattery, he banishes her, thus leading to betrayal, barbarism, madness, and a very large stack of bodies. By the end, bereft of everything he once held dear, Lear finally sees the truth about his catastrophic decisions, the darkness of the human soul, and the redemptive power of love—but, Jackson says, “he’s past the point where he can do anything about it.”
“The play is a Mount Everest,” she adds. “It goes from the gutter to the peak of the highest mountain in the world—it’s all there. For me, Shakespeare has always been the most contemporary of playwrights, because the people he writes about, regardless of their titles or where they are or what their nationality is, are people we know, or at least might bump into. His subject is human beings: Who are we? What are we? Why are we? And those questions have really yet to have comprehensive answers. Ain’t nothing new there, friend.”
As is Gold’s wont, the production will be simple and pared down, with sets by Miriam Buether and costumes by Ann Roth, though there will be a few opulent visual touches (not to mention an original score by Philip Glass) to depict a world of corrupt wealth and power. And though Gold won’t be drawing explicit parallels to current events or people, he expects it to resonate with the world in which we live. “The great thing about doing a Shakespeare play is that you always feel excited by how much it means right now,” he says. “And right now, I certainly enjoy taking a king and having him stripped naked, exposed to the howling winds, and screaming helplessly to the gods. It’s a good feeling to enact that at this particular moment.”
As is also his wont, Gold has assembled a sterling cast of veterans and newcomers. One of his more inspired choices is tapping Ruth Wilson, fresh from her sudden departure from four seasons of adultery and murder on The Affair, to play both Cordelia and the Fool, two very different characters who both speak the unvarnished truth to Lear. “They’re both challenging roles on their own,” Wilson says. “So the idea of playing them both and trying to find some sort of connection between them—especially for my first time doing Shakespeare and my first time singing onstage—excited me and scared me.”
Fear, as it turns out, is an actor’s bread and butter. When I ask Jackson how it feels to be experiencing a whole second chapter of her storied career, she tells me, “Look—it’s always hard; it’s always the first time you’ve done it. It would be nice to think that experience cushioned you—it doesn’t. Ain’t no good going out there and saying, ‘I used to be great,’ or ‘You should have seen me last night.’ We’re all sadomasochists.”
But surely there must be some sense of satisfaction in a job well done?
“Yes, but it doesn’t stay with you,” she says. “You might be great one night, but you have to do it again the next day, and it may not be there. Satisfaction is always in the past. The present moment—the now—is where we have to live.”
In this story:
Fashion Editor: Phyllis Posnick.
Hair: Luc Verschueren; Makeup: Francelle Daly.
Tailor: Christy Rilling Studio.
Set Design: Hans Maharawal.