Glenda Jackson Plays Lear on Broadway, and She Is Every Inch a King

From left: Jayne Houdyshell and Glenda Jackson man the stage of the Cort Theatre as the Earl of Gloucester and King Lear. Brigitte Lacombe

This production of King Lear, with Glenda Jackson in the title role, has been one of the most anticipated and talked about in years. The big question concerns Jackson: Does she play Queen Lear, or is she a king? Well, that gets answered pretty quickly: Jackson is every inch a king, and she is every inch a man—well, give or take a few. When she enters, she seems very small and almost frail next to her fellow actors. Then she speaks. After that, she towers above everyone. In fact, she commands the stage much better than Lear commands his kingdom.

Unfortunately for the king, Jackson's portrayal does not improve his fate. For those who aren't up to date on such things: Lear is getting ready to pass the baton and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. All they have to do is tell him how much they love him. Regan and Goneril are more than up to the task. Lear is just superficial enough to fall for it. Then comes Cordelia: Her love may be sincere, but it is not effusive. Well, sucking up is the order of the day, and before you know it she is one gone girl.

Related: Glenda Jackson, Jayne Houdyshell and Elizabeth Marvel on the cosmic, timeless fury of 'King Lear'

And so begins the decline of Lear, his family and his kingdom. While Henry IV may have felt that uneasy is the head that wears a crown, he had nothing on Lear. Everyone from Albany (the Duke) to Edmund (the bastard, and I mean that in the most legitimate sense) wants that crown, and they will stop at nothing. There are enough plots and counterplots to fill a dozen Agatha Christie mysteries. By the time the second half rolls around, everything is in disarray: Furniture is trashed, trash is trashed; and the people aren't doing that well either. The king and his kingdom are in complete disarray.

Luckily, the same cannot be said of the actors. The cast is the best part of this production, especially the principals. Jayne Houdyshell plays the doomed Earl of Gloucester straight—that is, as a man. After a few minutes into the play, gender is irrelevant. For all the talk preceding the production, this Lear is not about stunt casting, just acting of a very high order. Houdyshell's best moments come in the second act, when Gloucester is blind. She is a sad shadow of his former self.

Ruth Wilson, star of PBS's Mrs. Wilson, really seems ageless: In Mrs. Wilson, she plays Alison, who is in her 40s. As a sincere and sweet Cordelia, she plays a 20-ish, 30-something woman. She also plays the Fool, who is like a teenager, bouncing about the stage like a crazed Artful Dodger. Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O'Sullivan, as Goneril and Regan, respectively, are wonderfully conniving, and yet appealing enough to charm that bastard Edmund.

While the set is spare—too spare, really—and very cold: A giant gold-ish wall dominates the stage much of the time (even at its best, Lear's kingdom didn't seem all that much of a destination)—it does keep the focus on the actors. The music, by Philip Glass, is usually not intrusive, though early on, before I had gotten used to the language, it was tough picking up some dialogue—and I had done some homework. There is enough music in Shakespeare's words; underscoring is not necessary.

By the way, it's a good idea to brush up on your Shakespeare for this. There is a lot to absorb, and it is, as some say, a "foreign" language. Reading the full text would be best; if that isn't possible, read a good summary and the character descriptions. That way, you can concentrate on Glenda Jackson and her crowning achievement at the Cort Theatre.

King Lear is playing at the Cort Theatre at 138 W 48th Street, New York. For more information, go to