‘King Lear’ Broadway Review: Glenda Jackson Triumphs in Cluttered Mess of a Revival

Director Sam Gold has ideas to update one of Shakespeare’s classic tragedies — so, so many ideas

At 82, Glenda Jackson is the right age to play King Lear. But rare is the octogenarian who has the regal bearing, command of language and the stamina to play the title character in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Let alone for eight shows per week.

From the moment she enters the stage at Broadway’s Cort Theatre, where director Sam Gold’s production opened on Thursday, Jackson seems to relish her strength and authority even as her Lear sets out to relinquish his kingdom to his three grown daughters in one of the most ill-advised real estate bequests of all time. She even trills her R’s when she speaks of Lear’s “crrrrawl toward death.”

But there is an indomitability to this Lear that endures beneath the frumpy suit jacket and androgynously short hairstyle. (There is no mistaking this for Queen Lear.) Even in the throes of dementia later in the show, Jackson’s Lear shows no wasted movement, no overly dramatic flourishes.

Would that Gold’s production had showed a similar resolve. But he seems to be one of these young Turks who comes to a classic text with ideas — so, so many ideas. And the result is a cluttered mess of a revival that too often threatens to overpower the poetry of the Bard’s text and the strengths of some of the production’s performances, Jackson’s in particular.

There is nothing wrong with a modern-dress revival that deploys guns instead of swords and duct tape instead of stockades, but Ann Roth’s costumes don’t seem to be situated in any identifiable modern era — ranging as they do from cross-style bow ties to sleeveless hoodies and camo gear. And while gender- or color- or ability-blind casting is admirable, it’s unclear why, for instance, the deaf actor Russell Harvard also must play the Duke of Cornwall in a kilt.

And if you must hire Philip Glass to compose a completely unnecessary underscore, why have the string quartet who plays it keep wandering into and out of the action like some kind of traveling mariachi band that stubbornly keeps returning to your subway car?

The clutter continues with Miriam Buether’s single set, a purple-carpeted, gold-plated-walled, flagpole-strewn reception room that would not be out of place in a European capital — or perhaps Trump Tower. The set is also lined with benches where actors occasionally loiter during scenes — and where that quartet mostly stays in the corner through the lengthy first act.

Gold is more successful by casting Ruth Wilson (“The Affair”) as both Cordelia, the once-favored daughter who runs afoul of her father in the opening scenes, and the Fool. It’s not a new idea — Lear himself seems to conflate the characters in one of his final speeches — but it proves effective here, and Wilson shows off a fine Cockney accent and a flair for ribald physical humor as the Fool (including a provocatively deployed carrot).

Even so, Gold can’t resist tweaking the Bard’s text to inject some anachronistic political commentary. “Then shall the realm of this nation come to great confusion,” Wilson’s fool says, as she lifts her pant legs to reveal socks designed with the Stars and Stripes of the U.S. flag.

Gold also stumbles with the play’s parallel parent-child drama involving the Duke of Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell, oddly flat), his righteous son Edgar (Sean Carvajal) and his devious illegitimate son Edmund (Pedro Pascal, “Narcos”).

Edmund is one of Shakespeare’s great villains, but Pascal plays him without much relish or, sadly, sex appeal — despite the fact that he locks lips with a male servant early on, drops trou for a surprisingly graphic onstage rutting with Lear’s eldest daughter Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel, mostly over the top) and then canoodles with middle sister Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan). We hear about Edmund giving “speaking looks” to Goneril — but only after the fact, and we never see it for ourselves, so the hookups and the character’s supposed irresistibility seem to come out of nowhere.

John Douglas Thompson is typically solid as the banished-but-still-loyal Kent, despite having to endure a UPS-style delivery uniform when he goes undercover at the Duke of Albany’s palace (delivering cases of champagne by hand-truck, no less). And Matthew Maher makes a strong impression as Goneril’s obsequious servant Oswald.

But Gold’s listless production keeps dragging just when it should be gaining momentum. The storm scene, in which Lear rages against both his disloyal daughters and Nature itself, is performed downstage in front of a metallic screen whose thunder effects seem to drown out the speeches and rob the moment of needed tension. There are similar problems with the parade of onstage violence and slaying — particularly the unintentionally comical reveal of Cordelia’s fate, which elicited snickers around me.

Only Jackson herself, declaiming Lear’s last lines in a burst of lucidity that rises above the hoarder’s clutter of smashed furniture and set-pieces around her, pierces through the unnecessary distractions of this production. It’s a welcome beacon of clarity in a fog of competing theatrical concepts.

It may be true, as Lear tells Cordelia early on, that nothing comes from nothing. But Gold’s “King Lear” stands as proof that nothing good can come from too much as well.

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