The defining word for this production is “bare” – the set is a white box, stretching back for yards, with the act and scene number projected on to its minimalist walls. The actors, too, are often stripped: Glenda Jackson’s Lear wanders around in just a shirt and long socks for much of the third act, wordlessly communicating knock-kneed fragility. Elsewhere, Gary Sefton’s Oswald takes off his top while sparring; Harry Melling, as Edgar, joins Daniel Radcliffe in the brotherhood of former Harry Potter actors who have gone full-frontal in the theatre; and Simon Manyonda, playing his half-brother, Edmund, seems hardly able to keep his bum in his trousers.
Advance publicity focused on Jackson, who has returned to the stage at the age of 80 after 23 years as a Labour MP. Accordingly, it is a starry production, and no one in the supporting cast threatens to pull the focus away from her. There has been no rewriting to accommodate her gender; that the “king” is a woman quickly becomes unremarkable.
Overall, however, this production relies a little too heavily on its star to make up for deficiencies elsewhere. Its tone is too level. Unlike, say, Simon Russell Beale in the 2014 National Theatre production, Jackson does not seem like a raging, wounded bull in the opening scene, in which Lear carves up the kingdom. Already frail, she has less far to fall. And the decision not to mike up the actors – except for the storm scenes, in which the scenery extends to rustling sheets of bin-bag material – obliges them to project their voices with such force that the performances can feel unsubtle.
There are also two catastrophic misjudgements. The first is to introduce the vengeful bastard Edmund by having him soliloquise while doing press-ups and later showing him masturbating over the brilliance of his evil plan. Talk about distractions from the text. The second is during the blinding of the loyal Gloucester (Karl Johnson), when Danny Webb’s Cornwall (style inspiration: advertising creative) and Jane Horrocks’s Regan (style inspiration: cougar divorcee inappropriately dressed for a funeral) undermine the scene’s pathos by throwing an eyeball into the crowd. “Ugh,” the stalls said as one, giggling nervously as we dodged to avoid getting splattered in the face.
Equally surprising titters were elicited by Rhys Ifans as the Fool, a part that can sometimes be as funny as a comedy piano tie. Looming over Jackson in a half-worn Superman onesie, he infused his patter with the perfect amount of pathos. The boisterousness of Lear’s entourage – or, as I thought of them, Glenda’s Banter Squadron – was sufficiently pronounced to make the audience feel early sympathy for Goneril (Celia Imrie) and Regan as they cut their father’s attendants first to 50, then 25, then none.
Where the production shone was in the final act. Approaching it, the possibilities offered by sex-swapping the lead role became apparent: when Jackson grabbed her groin to make a macho point, the artificiality was obvious; when she raged against the “sulphurous pit” below women’s waists, it felt more complicatedly misogynistic. Finally, as the king cradles the dead Cordelia (Morfydd Clark), we realised that this is a daughter whom Lear would have carried and suckled; the king has lost flesh that was once her flesh. Here, the bareness of the production allowed us to glimpse something new: a mother’s grief.
The Old Vic’s “King Lear” runs until 3 December. oldvictheatre.com
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile