WHAT "King Lear"
WHEN | WHERE Through June 7, Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.
INFO From $35; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Glenda Jackson is every inch the king, defying a few unnecessary intrusions in this quirky "Lear."
With an acting eminence of Glenda Jackson's stature in the title role, "King Lear" hardly requires gratuitous sex scenes, a roaming string quartet, or digressions into other languages.
But such minor intrusions in the quirky, gender-blind staging of William Shakespeare's tragedy of mortality and madness at the Cort Theatre cannot take away from what everyone's come to see — Jackson performing the role widely considered the Everest of the profession.
She’s done it before, just more than two years ago in London as her return to the stage after 23 years in Parliament. While that was a triumph (one London critic called it the best Lear she’d ever seen), this modern-dress, opulent production, daringly directed by Sam Gold, lets her portray in an entirely new way the aging monarch's agonizing decline.
A quick recap of the timely tale: Ready to relinquish power and divide his kingdom, Lear demands his three daughters express their feelings for him. Goneril and Regan profess the expected filial devotion, while the youngest, Cordelia, offers nothing and is immediately banished. But turns out it's her sisters and their conniving husbands who are after dad's kingdom, resulting in significant treachery and bloodshed.
Jackson gives Lear magnificent depth, her rough, gravelly voice and marvelous facial contortions capturing in exquisite detail a man losing touch by the second. The actress has said repeatedly that age blurs perceptions of gender, and the truth of this 82-year-old woman as king is never in question. (Jayne Houdyshell's powerful Earl of Gloucester also defies gender distinctions.)
There are other fine performances, including some big names from the small screen. Ruth Wilson ("The Affair") superbly manages her double casting as Cordelia and the king's fool, and Pedro Pascal's Edmund, illegitimate son of Gloucester, dies in a bloodbath almost as gruesome as his last scene in "Game of Thrones." If there's any fault here, it's too much competition for focus. The musicians playing Philip Glass' score are distracting, as is the injection of American Sign Language (Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall, is played by the remarkable deaf actor Russell Harvard). And the explicit depiction of Goneril's attraction to Edmund is an unfortunate choice.
But really, you can't blame Gold for throwing so much at this "Lear." Jackson, though she would clearly pooh-pooh the notion, is a living legend who's earned her pedestal. Not that you'd know it from her curtain call. Showing not a whit of exhaustion after three-plus grueling hours, she graciously acknowledges the rest of the cast, then gives a crooked smile and a little shrug that seems to be saying, "Who, me?" Well, yes, you.