I saw *King Lear* with a whole crowd of friends on 4/9/19: me, Richard, Karen, Liz, David, and Renée. I had been looking forward to seeing Dame Glenda Jackson as King Lear for literally YEARS - - she returned to acting after an absence of 23 years in 2016, as King Lear at the Old Vic in London. Richard and I tried to make it over there for it, but the timing was wrong. Thankfully she crossed the pond last spring in her Tony-winning turn in Albee's *Three Tall Women.* She was amazing in that, she gave a deeply nuanced performance, full of grace and power, and such an extraordinary use of her voice. I believe she announced sometime during the run of that show (or shortly thereafter) that she'd be doing Lear on Broadway in the spring of 2019 and I went coo coo nutty.
I was even more intrigued when I heard that they weren't bringing over the Deborah Warner production she had done in London - - I like Warner's work a lot, but she was doing a brand new production directed by Sam Gold. I've seen many things he's done (*The Real Thing,* *The Flick,* *Fun Home,* *The Glass Menagerie,* *A Doll's House Part 2,* *Hamlet*) and while his work isn't always great, it's always fascinating. I was reminded of something my friend John said about seeing *Norma* at the Met a few years ago: he chose to hear Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma rather than Angela Meade, because even though Meade might sing the role more beautifully, Radvanovsky would be more interesting. There are other directors who would do a more classic, well-rounded production of *King Lear,* but no one could do what Gold does. He has a strong point of view and he knows how to put it across.
The show got mixed to bad reviews, and while I don't read reviews before I write my own, it's difficult to remain completely oblivious. It helps to know that I don't always agree with the critics. The one thing that concerned me was that the first act was two hours long. Thankfully I was sitting on the aisle (the advantage to being the ringleader in a party of six) and the show actually went by fairly quickly.
Dame Glenda was amazing. Again, her voice was the star of the show, and her command of the stage and the language is unparalleled. They say that by the time you're ready to play Lear you no longer have the stamina or mental capacity to do it, but she really delivered on every level. It was a thrill to see her in this role. Her line reading of "Never never never never never" in her final scene was one of the most magical moments I've ever seen onstage.
Jayne Houdyshell played the Duke of Gloucester, the other elderly character, and she was extraordinary. She had a lyricism to her performance, a welcome foil to Jackson. I first saw her as the battle axe mother in *Bye Bye Birdie* and have seen her in other similar roles, most memorably as the maid in Gold's production of *A Doll's House Part 2,* she was hilarious in that. I got the feeling, seeing her in *Lear,* that she loved the challenge of doing a major, dramatic Shakespeare role.
The three daughters were played by Ruth Wilson (Cordelia), Elizabeth Marvel (Goneril), and Aisling O'Sullivan (Regan). All three were fantastic. Wilson gets extra credit for also playing the Fool. I hadn't seen Marvel in anything before, she really went after the unattractive aspects of her character, that's always a joy to see (she was aided by her tacky wig and costumes). Karen and I saw Aisling O'Sullivan as Henry V a few summers ago, and more recently as the daughter in *The Beauty Queen of Leenane.* She really lived up to her promise in this role. This was her Broadway debut and I hope we see her in something else soon. She's a fearless actor.
Pedro Pascal played Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester. I was impressed with his facility with the language, and his ease speaking directly to the audience (his character seems to do that more than anyone else in this show). Another Broadway debut.
Gold cast the show with an international cast and made the interesting choice to have them all speak with their own accents. Jackson had a plummy English accent, Houdyshell's accent was Middle American, Wilson was middle-of-the-road English as Cordelia and Cockney as the Fool, Pascal had a slight Chilean accent, and O'Sullivan had a strong Irish accent. It was fascinating to hear all these different accents, it seemed like Gold wanted each actor to have their own integrity in the way they spoke.
The biggest surprise of the show was the casting of the Duke of Cornwall, Regan's husband. He was played by Russell Harvard, a deaf actor I had seen in *There Will Be Blood,* on two seasons of the *Fargo* TV series, and onstage in the recent revival of *Spring Awakening.* There was an interpreter onstage (Michael Arden) nearly every time Harvard was, and the interpreter spoke his lines as Harvard signed them, and interpreted the other characters' dialogue. Harvard spoke at a few high drama moments, those moments had a big impact. And on the flip side, there were a few moments when the two actors signed at each other without any spoken dialogue at all. The casting of this actor in that role seemed to be another example of Gold wanting to respect the actor's own personal way of talking. I'd love to see more of this.
Philip Glass wrote the music, and his work is severely hit or miss, but it really worked in this show. There was a string quartet onstage, in evening dress - - sometimes they were part of the action, other times they were playing incidental music and not literally present in the scene. The music was used intelligently and the music itself was effective. Glass seems to work very well in situations like this, when his music is used to accompany or amplify something else, rather than the main event itself.
I loved the set and costume designs, lots of gold in the set and opulent tackiness in the costumes. I was disappointed to see the curtain go up on the second act with garbage strewn all over the stage. I don't like this Make a Mess movement in the theater lately - - to me, it doesn't create drama, it just creates a mess. Plus there was just one place for the characters to sit down, an overturned chair. Couldn't they come up with one or two other options?
My wish for the 2020 season: let's have Dame Glenda in a NEW play! How about something by Tracy Letts?