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Now Opening: Tony Winner Glenda Jackson in ‘King Lear’

Category Broadway

|by Ron Fassler |

The living legend will tackle one of theater’s toughest roles

Would it surprise you to learn that William Shakespeare’s King Lear, perhaps the most revered tragedy in his sumptuous canon, hasn’t had a commercial production within the twelve blocks of Broadway between 41st and 53rd Streets since 1950? That is until this week, when the formidable Glenda Jackson will lead a diverse cast (with herself in the title role) at the Cort Theatre on West 48th. The reason why it is so seldom that producers take on the steep climb required, is that not only is it a notoriously difficult work (and a tough one to sell), but in spite of the allure for actors to play the role, it is one of the most terrifying to contemplate in all of world theater. The demands are enormous, and when you hit a certain age that makes the most sense to portray the eighty-year-old monarch, many actors simply no longer have the strength for the kind of endurance it requires (especially if one is committed to performing it eight times a week). But here we have an actress at age eighty-two not only ready for all of that, but having already done so in late 2016 to glorious notices in her native London, winning the coveted Evening Standard Award for Best Actress.

Glenda Jackson as the title character in ‘King Lear’ (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Glenda Jackson as the title character in ‘King Lear’ (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Then again, Glenda Jackson is no ordinary actress. Not only is she now eighty-two (turning eighty-three next month), she is coming off one of her greatest successes last season, when she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in an electrifying performance in a revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Having attended the theater for fifty years now, I can say without reservation that it was one of the most astonishing pieces of work I’ve ever encountered. And she barely got out of a chair! Now, only a year later, she is back on the boards with a second stab at portraying King Lear, re-thought and re-designed in an entirely new production, staged by the Tony Award-winning director Sam Gold.

Lest we forget King Lear is no one-man (or one-woman) show, the cast that has been put together for this production boasts a slew of heavyweight actors. Lear’s three daughters are being portrayed by an American (Elizabeth Marvel), an Irish woman (Aisling O’Sullivan) and a Brit, Ruth Wilson (who, in an inspired bit of casting, is doubling as both Cordelia and Lear’s Fool). Deaf actor Russell Harvard is playing the twisted Cornwall, with the multi-talented actor and director Michael Arden interpreting in sign language as his aide. Jayne Houdyshell, a recent Tony Award winner for The Humans, is the Earl of Gloucester, and her sons, Edmund and Edgar, will be played by Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones), and Sean Carvajal (excellent in the recent Signature Theatre revival of Jesus Hopped the “A” Train). Add to the mix the fine Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson as Kent, and you have the makings of an extraordinary company.

The sheer bravery involved with Jackson taking on Lear goes beyond her age. When she took to the stage of the Old Vic in 2016, she hadn’t acted in in nearly a quarter of a century. After her much-praised early stage work in London and New York in the mid-1960s, she earned an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1970’s Women in Love. Three years later, she won a second for the comedy A Touch of Class. The world was her oyster, and she continued to work in all mediums. But during this twenty-year period, her love for acting eventually began to take a back seat to her passionate interest in British politics. So it was in 1992 that she ran for and won a seat in the House of Commons, later becoming a Labour Member of Parliament. She stepped down in 2015, two days’ shy of her 79th birthday.  

What tricks this brilliant actress (and activist) has up her sleeve in what will surely be a memorable King Lear will be on display at the Cort Theatre in a strictly limited engagement, scheduled for nineteen weeks only through July 7th. If you love Shakespeare, great acting and aren’t intimidated by a three hour running time, get thee to the box office now.

For more of the best of Broadway, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in April 2019. 

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