Reviews round-up: Glenda Jackson in King Lear

A reviews round-up for King Lear at The Old Vic Theatre starring Glenda Jackson

Debra Warner’s highly anticipated production of King Lear starring Glenda Jackson has now opened at The Old Vic Theatre.

Octogenarian Glenda Jackson marks her return to acting following a two-decade absence in what is described as a ‘storming, ferocious, unflinching’ performance in the demanding role of ‘King Lear’.

Widely referred to as an uneven production, highlights include Rhys Ifans’ ‘Fool’ dressed in a superman costume, Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks ‘icy, power-dressing studies in ambition’ as ‘Goneril’ and ‘Regan’ and Harry Melling’s tender performance as ‘Edgar’.

King Lear runs until 3 December 2016 at the Old Vic.


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Here’s what the critics thought.

Average rating score for this production


"Jackson ends a 25-year absence with a ferocious, unflinching performance that transcends gender and puts her among the best Lears Jackson embodies Lear’s contradictions: while tenderly clutching the dead Cordelia, she spits with vengeful fury at “you murderers, traitors all”. Warner’s production offers a clear framework for a shattering performance. She and Jean Kalman have created a simple design composed of rectangular white flats: at one point, one spins round to reveal the beer-stocked fridge at Goneril’s house. The storm is evoked through billowing black sheets, looking like large bin liners, and a projected rainstorm. A perspective of distant blue sea tells us we are in Dover. Some of the details are decidedly peculiar: both Edmund and Edgar display their buttocks to the audience making me wonder if mooning is a family trait. The surrounding performances are also variable. Rhys Ifans over-colours every line of the Fool, even venturing into a cod Bob Dylan tone when he sings a snatch of folk: But Celia Imrie’s grimly determined Goneril and Jane Horrocks’s sexually excitable Regan are sharply distinguished. Morfydd Clark as Cordelia intriguingly suggests a belated passion for Sargon Yelda’s Kent. And although Edgar’s argument that he fails to reveal himself to Gloucester to save his father from despair strikes me as nonsensical, Harry Melling lends the role a believable integrity." Michael Billington, The Guardian

"Glenda Jackson's performance will be talked about for years' the two-times Oscar-winner has made the mother of all comebacks Jackson arrives briskly from the back of the stage – which has been opened up to its full-limit, the mise-en-scène white, modern, minimalist and stark, with a touch of Brecht: a projected running tab is kept on which scene we’re in. Casual crew and cast preparations before the start, and the use of plastic chairs almost suggest a company read-through. The dress is contemporary. There’s none of the processional grandeur that marks out the current RSC production with Antony Sher. If an old criticism of Jackson was that she could be monotonously rasping and metallic in vocal tone, she avoids that charge, narrowly: she can be self-ironic, playful with the verse, If the rantings in the storm scene are upstaged by the effects (billowing black-plastic sheeting, video projection conjuring a weather apocalypse) the aftermath – in which Lear is reduced to long-socks and an over-shirt, moves into the terrain of hard-won pathos. The last moments, as Jackson cradles the dead Cordelia are exquisitely stirring. The rest of the production – a long, but not insufferably so, evening – is a mixed bag. Definite highlights include Rhys Ifans as an anarchic Fool, in Superman-cape, donning a scary-clown mask and sleeping out the storm in a shopping-trolley. Harry Melling – shows impressive elan (and some bravery, doing a full-frontal strip as the maligned Edgar), while as his dastardly sibling Edmund, Simon Manyonda coolly performs his opening soliloquy while doing a skipping-rope work-out." Dominic Maxwell, Daily Telegraph

"Lear is a remarkable act of stamina, memory and emotional reserves for any actor. It becomes, in Jackson's initially ferocious and ultimately desperately vulnerable presence, a tour de force. As she stumbles around the heath, her bare, bony legs exposed, you know everything of Lear's age and rage and what these events have cost him. Deborah Warner's slightly self-consciously modish production, staged and co-designed by her with lighting designer Jean Kalman in the current modern European art-house mode. The first sight is of a line of blue plastic chairs, arranged against a series of geometric white screens, and Edmund's first entrance sees him having to do a long physical work-out, skipping vigorously and doing other exercises, while also speaking. He even moons the audience. I have to admit my heart sank a little, but fortunately the concept is carried by the compelling performances of a cast of fine actors. Karl Johnson is a grizzled Gloucester (when his eyes are ripped out one is thrown into the audience, and on press night landed in someone’s ice cream). Rhys Ifans, in a Superman shirt and cape, is a dominating Fool, and Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks are appropriately icy, power-dressing studies in ambition as Goneril and Regan. The two most tender performances of the night though, come from Harry Melling's Edgar, heartbreaking as Poor Tom, and Morfydd Clark, who has a forgiving vulnerability as Cordelia." Mark Shenton, The Stage

"There is plenty in this show that irritates: baring of chaps’ bottoms, a Fool (Rhys Ifans) dressed in a Superman outfit and singing a Bob Dylan tune, a French king’s accent possibly borrowed from ’Allo ’Allo. The eye-gouging scene is so feeble that some people laughed, particularly when one of the eyes was thrown to the stalls like a toffee at a Christmas panto. She makes for a shrivelled Lear, lined as a walnut, scuttling, hobbling, flicking her unisex fringe and waving two distractingly large, washerwomanish hands as though in semaphore. Her performance tastes oddly over-rehearsed, almost every sentence seemingly with its designated gesticulations and vocal inflections. This is also true of Harry Melling’s Edgar, who at the finale, when talking of Lear’s death, keeps whacking his own heart. He should let the verse speak for itself. Miss Jackson’s changes in tone frequently feel pre-designated rather than organic. The cigarettey voice is deep, often as deep as many a male Lear, and at times assumes a strangulated, fishtank-ish quality." Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail

"Glenda Jackson makes a storming return to the stage even if the production sometimes tries too hard to be edgy. Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage, after an absence of more than twenty years, is a triumph. When she first appears as King Lear, her authority is blunt and uncompromising. She hisses contempt when her daughter Cordelia won’t comply with her hankering for flattery. Angry, she scythes at the air — her hands like wicked blades. Later she’s ghostly and vulnerable, but even in her most extreme moments of frailty there’s a residual hint of fierceness. Jane Horrocks and Celia Imrie as Lear’s rebellious daughters Regan and Goneril are poised, but a little too much like pantomime villains. Simon Manyonda’s Edmund is obliged to skip rope like a gym bunny and display his naked bottom — and when his brother Edgar (Harry Melling) shows off his rear you might wonder if it’s an inherited urge. Whether or not you’re amused by this kind of thing, it’s a symptom of the production’s clunky attitude to characterisation. The pick of the supporting cast are Rhys Ifans as the Fool, flamboyant and outrageous in a Superman cape yet replete with weary wisdom, and Sargon Yelda, a shape-shifting Earl of Kent — and one for whom Morfydd Clark’s Cordelia seems to have an unexpected hunger. This is an overlong King Lear, which doesn’t reveal the full scope of the tragedy’s profundity. But Glenda Jackson is immense. Even though we’re talking about a performer who has won two Oscars, this will surely rate as one of her greatest achievements." Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard

"Watching Deborah Warner's modern-dress production at the Old Vic, you simply can’t believe that Jackson has not been on stage for 25 years. That metal-tipped whiplash of a voice is undimmed in its power to inflict devastating, incredulous scorn as we hear from the moment that Morfydd Clark's excellent, refreshingly honest and mettlesome Cordelia refuses to play the game of lip-service in the opening love contest. She’s hair-raisingly vehement as she gives vent to Lear’s misogynist rants and finds quiet touches that piercingly bring home his anguish. Warner's production is uneven and unmissable – offering, at its best, a powerfully imaginative vision of the stark, pitiless incoherence of the universe in King Lear. The storm and heath are thrillingly communicated. A curtain like a gigantic black bin-bag flops down, turbulently billowing and bulging over the minimalist white stage. There’s another paradox: a Lear with a female actor cast as hero seems to have gone back to the pre-Peter Brook conception of Regan and Goneril as somewhat camp villainesses instead of as the victims of their father’s unreasonable demands. Are they the product of different kinds of paternally induced trauma. You aren’t kept sufficiently guessing by Jane Horrocks’s Regan stalking about on her killer heels and Celia Imrie’s pursed, suburban Goneril, who, after poisoning her sister, dons the marigolds to scrub away the vomit. The characterisations are so hit and miss. Rhys Ifans is a lovely warm and robust Fool, wandering about in a bedraggled Superman outfit and sticking two eggshell halves into his eye sockets as a larky but pointed parody of his master’s moral blindness. Simon Manyonda, by contrast, gives a dismayingly external account of the malcontent bastard Edmund." Paul Taylor

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