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Glenda Jackson takes on the ultimate of Shakespeare's roles

Glenda Jackson takes on the title role in

Glenda Jackson takes on the title role in "King Lear," which opens April 4 at Broadway's Cort Theatre. Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Glenda Jackson is leaning back, hands resting behind her head, and laughing. That’s how the two-time Oscar winner appears on the Playbill cover for William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which opens April 4 at the Cort Theatre. It may not show that “Lear” is a dark, violent tale of egotistic royals teetering on the brink of sanity and savagery, but one thing is clear: its star is having a blast.

Playing a man — and not just any man, but the titular role, arguably the most challenging in all of acting — is immaterial to her. She brushes that aside with the same casual air she employed back in 1992 when she gave up acting and entered politics.

“As a Member of Parliament I had to visit old people’s homes,” says Jackson, who served as a Labour MP for 23 years, retiring in 2015. One of the interesting things she noticed upon meeting her older constituents, she says, is that “the older we get, the more gender barriers begin to fracture; they get a bit … foggy.”

Sitting at a Manhattan diner and dressed just like her program cover — sweatshirt, floral scarf, no makeup, no plastic surgery nonsense — she plunges into her chicken Caesar salad with a fervor reminiscent of the way she’s currently biting into this role. Playing an irascible, aging monarch, she must rant and rage to the rafters in a production that lasts more than three hours.

“Forget about the fact that it’s a woman playing Lear,” says Michael LoMonico, a Shakespeare scholar and former adjunct professor of English at Stony Brook University. “The fact that it’s an 82-year-old playing the role is even more incredible.”

Taking some friendly advice

Lear is a coveted role for the highly skilled actor — John Gielgud (twice), Laurence Olivier (twice), Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, among others, plus a handful of women, including Spanish actress Núria Espert, a friend of Jackson’s who suggested she play the part.

So she did, at London’s Old Vic in 2016, earning raves. Now she’s on Broadway in a revamped version, with a new director (Sam Gold) and cast.

The show boasts original music by Philip Glass (performed by live musicians onstage) and additional gender flips — Jayne Houdyshell as the Earl of Gloucester and Ruth Wilson as the king’s maligned daughter Cordelia and the (usually male) Fool.

When she first played Lear, Jackson worried she’d lack the physical and vocal stamina. “So I’d trot down to my local swimming pool every morning and swim,” she says. For this run, she’s got a pool in the apartment building where she’s staying, but she hasn’t had time to use it. “I like to walk when the weather’s clement — New York’s a great city to walk in,” she says.

And there’s always standing on one foot.

Her physiotherapist gave Jackson a series of exercises to perform last year after she woke up in the middle of the night “to go to the loo, and my balance had gone completely,” she recounts. She can now count to 20 balanced on one foot. “And that’s pretty good,” she says, scooping up another forkful of chicken Caesar.

What Shakespeare got wrong

Today’s common refrain from actresses — that there just aren’t many good roles for women — certainly held true in Shakespeare’s day, when even men played the women. The age issue only compounds the problem.

Shakespeare didn’t write many meaty roles for older women, notes Josh Cabat, chair of English at Roslyn Public Schools. “And while he wrote tons of father-daughter relationships, there are almost no mother-son combinations,” he says. No wonder actresses like Jackson are rewriting the rules.

“Lear” opens with the king divvying up his kingdom among his three daughters, in exchange for each showering him with flattery. When Cordelia, his favorite, refuses to play along, he banishes her, moves in with his other two daughters, driving each of them crazy, then lapses into madness himself. In other words, just your typical dysfunctional family, Elizabethan style.

“Anyone of a certain age can relate to ‘Lear,’ and the family issues that go along with it,” says LoMonico, who teaches Shakespeare to a class of mostly retired students at Stony Brook University. His students quickly see the connection “between the way Lear’s children treat him and the way they deal with their own families,” he says.

Cabat agrees.

“Everyone’s got family issues. In the end, this may be the most universal of all Shakespeare’s tragedies.”

Life as an MP

What’s less universal? Having actual political experience, which one might think would provide useful insights into playing a king, but Jackson disagrees. “Lear’s a man who no one has ever said no to. His power is absolute. Which is somewhat different from Parliament.”

In her role as politician, Jackson quickly became known as a fiery and outspoken critic of Margaret Thatcher and, later, Tony Blair. Knowing how to land a dramatic monologue came in handy, and she could deliver a burn with calculated confidence. Like her takedown of an opposing MP during a 2010 housing benefit debate. (“If the honorable gentleman had been here from the beginning of this debate, he would not have been as ill-informed as he is ill-mannered.”) Or her notorious tirade against Thatcherism, in a 2013 session intended for tributes shortly after the former prime minister’s death.

Jackson insists she never missed acting once she entered politics, and the reverse seems to hold true. She seems relieved not to have to address Britain’s exit from the European Union.

“I can’t believe they’re making such a MESS of it all,” she says of Parliament, and Brexit. “I didn’t agree with it — I voted to stay. But that’s democracy. The country said ‘We want out.’ ”

Despite her politics (liberal) and those of Prime Minister Theresa May (conservative), she finds herself in May’s corner. “I have real admiration for her, the way she keeps on banging (it out). She’s been treated abysmally.”

Hmm … an abused parental figure overseeing a family marked by fractious infighting? Think about it long enough and even Parliament starts to sound a lot like “Lear.”

That’s what Jackson finds particularly interesting about this play, she says. Shakespeare wrote it more than 400 years ago, and it still feels relevant.

“Human nature doesn’t change,” she says. “It’s immutable.”

JACKSON’S FIVE

Born to working class parents in Liverpool (dad was a bricklayer, mom a charlady), Glenda Jackson won a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1954. By the 1970s she was a fixture on both the big and small screens. Here are five of her most memorable roles.

“Women in Love” (1969)

British film romance based on D.H. Lawrence’s novel. Jackson danced with a herd of (real) bulls—and won her first Oscar.

 “Elizabeth R” (1971)

Jackson won two Emmys for her electric Queen Elizabeth I on this BBC series that later helped popularize PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre.” 

“A Touch of Class” (1973)

This Brit rom-com pairing Jackson and George Segal earned her a second Oscar.

“Morecambe & Wise (1971-74)

Serious actress? Sure, but her frequent guest appearances on this popular English TV variety show proved her comedy chops (and are fun to watch on YouTube).

        

Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women” (2018)

After more than two decades in Parliament, Jackson returned to Broadway--and won a Tony.

— JOSEPH V. AMODIO

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