Jayne Houdyshell & Glenda Jackson in King Lear

Review of King Lear, starring Glenda Jackson, on Broadway

Donna Herman
Donna Herman

Sam Gold's production of King Lear, currently playing at Broadway's Cort Theatre with Glenda Jackson gender-bending the title role, is not for Shakespeare neophytes. It's barely for those well versed in the Bard's verse without a bit of head scratching. Mr. Gold has enjoyed recent success with well received Off-Broadway productions of Othello and Hamlet in his quest to stage all of Shakespeare's tragedies. His move to Broadway with King Lear does not live up to expectations.

Gold is known for his creative and out-of-the-box staging, setting and casting. With King Lear he seems to have let his imagination soar and thrown everything he had in the pot at the wall to see what sticks. Casting an actress of Glenda Jackson's caliber as the titular character is certainly not risky. And once you've gone there, it wasn't more than a momentary jolt to see Jayne Houdyshell as the Earl of Gloucester, very creditably being a pig about his illegitimate son Edmund (Pedro Pascal).

Casting a deaf actor as the Duke of Cornwall (Russell Harvard) gets a little trickier since he then has to have an aide (Michael Arden) who is a sign language interpreter on stage who occasionally speaks his lines for him. But sometimes doesn't. And sometimes his wife Regan (Aisling O'Sullivan) will exchange a word or two of ASL with him, leaving those of us who unfortunately don't know ASL in the dark.

Adding to the general confusion of trying to understand Shakespeare's wonderfully rich but dense language, is the fact that several of the characters seem to be in different plays. Edmund, despite being the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester and so embittered and greedy for power that he is having affairs with both Regan and Goneril and conspiring against his brother, father and ultimately King Lear and Cordelia, seems to be in a lighthearted comedy for much of the play. While Regan seems to be either on the verge of sobbing or actually sobbing most of the time, even though she's being cruel to her father and egging her husband to do evil deeds. So her constant tears make no sense. Whereas Goneril is behaving like the floozy on a soap opera. She drops her drawers (literally) for Edmund, makes faces at and ignores her husband, and walks around in a sparkly short dress. And when she catches wind that her sister has the hots for Edmund, she poisons her.

And why, oh why, was the Duke of Albany (Dion Johnstone) who would traditionally have a tie to Scotland, be dressed in a suit while the Duke of Cornwall who had no such ties, be dressed in a kilt? I kept getting confused as to which was which.

In the end, Mr. Gold's production of King Lear is not so much visionary as involuntary. It felt like there was nobody guiding the ship.

(Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

"Could we please have a little quiet? There's a great actress onstage at the Cort Theater, and I'd like to hear what she's saying. That was the way I felt during much of Sam Gold's production of King Lear, which opened on Thursday night with the extraordinary Glenda Jackson in the title role. It should surprise no one that Ms. Jackson is delivering a powerful and deeply perceptive performance as the most royally demented of Shakespeare's monarchs. But much of what surrounds her in this glittery, haphazard production seems to be working overtime to divert attention from that performance."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"Gold's production is full of interesting directorial choices that do not quite cohere into a shared universe for King Lear's characters to inhabit."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

"An ill wind is blowing through Broadway's Cort Theatre and it's not coming from King Lear's fabled storm on the heath. It's the misdirection in this latest production of the great Shakespearean tragedy. Fortunately, there's Glenda Jackson in the title role acting up a storm herself; Her mighty talents are just about enough to make up for the many missteps in Sam Gold's flawed staging."
Roma Torre for NY1

"It's often said that there's no greater grief than a parent's loss of a child, so it follows that there's no more devastating moment in King Lear than when the monarch's pitiless odyssey through familial betrayal, rage and madness, triggered by his own blind vanity, leaves him cradling the dead body of the one daughter whose love for him was pure. That goes double when the title character's tragic arc is explored, in Sam Gold's aggressively modern, gender-blind production, by the magnificent Glenda Jackson. The searing pathos of Lear's abject diminishment seems all the more powerful given the steely authority that precedes it."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

"Shakespeare nailed it: "Though she be little, she is fierce." Glenda Jackson may look frail, but the 82-year-old legend performs the noble task of rescuing director Sam Gold's rickety Broadway production of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. To be sure, the salvage job is all technique. But although Jackson fails to wring tears, let alone blood, from this production, the sheer intelligence of her performance makes it memorable."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive New York theatre updates!

Special offers, reviews and release dates for the best shows in town.

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy