Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Manuel Harlan

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

In 1980, when the actress Glenda Jackson was at the height of her fame, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar published his story “We Love Glenda So Much.” It is narrated by a member of a cult devoted to the adoration of Glenda Jackson. At first, they meet in cafés after seeing her on stage or screen to talk about her. Then they find themselves “looking each other in the eyes, there where Glenda’s last image in the last scene of the last movie still breathed.”

Gradually they acknowledge that there are tiny imperfections in some of the movie scenes, some moments when the writer or director has not done her full justice. They set about stealing every copy of those films before doctoring them in a lab and releasing them back to the public in a perfect state, so that “the screens of the world were presenting her in just the way that she herself—we were sure—would have wanted to be presented.” Their happiness is complete when Jackson announces her retirement from acting:

Now we would be able to see every one of Glenda’s works without the agonizing threat of a tomorrow plagued by mistakes and blunders; now we could come together with the lightness of angels or birds, in an absolute presence that was like eternity.

Alas for the cult, Jackson announces her return to acting. At the end of the story it is clear that those who love her so much have accepted that the only solution to their problem is to assassinate her:

We loved Glenda so much that we would offer her one last inviolable perfection. On the untouchable heights to which we had raised her in exaltation, we would save her from the fall, her faithful could go on adoring her without any decrease; one does not come down from a cross alive.

Glenda Jackson did retire from acting. In 1992 she was elected as the Labour member of Parliament for Hampstead and Highgate. She stayed in the House of Commons (and off both stage and screen) until last year’s general election when she stood down, just days shy of her seventy-ninth birthday. Her career as a performer has thus long been up there on the untouchable heights of past glory, if not quite an inviolable perfection then certainly a radiant memory. She could be safely adored, not just as a great actor who brought the edginess of the English avant-garde into the Hollywood mainstream, but as a great feminist who blasted aside all the limitations on how a woman could represent power and sex and beauty. She had, indeed, “an absolute presence that was like eternity.”

And now, after a quarter of a century, she has come down from the cross, alive and kicking, back into the rough, contingent, imperfect world of the theater. It is a resurrection so dramatic in itself that it might have overwhelmed the drama she is actually presenting. We might have been invited to love Glenda so much that we have little love left for the foolish, broken, mad, and maddening king she is playing. The wonder might be not that King Lear is done well but that it is done at all by an eighty-year-old woman who was last in a play when she was fifty-five. It speaks volumes for her integrity that within minutes of her arrival on the stage of the Old Vic, the sense of occasion drops away. We are absorbed into a vastly intelligent, immensely skilled, and deeply moving account of Lear’s tumultuous fall from royalty to wretchedness.

The obvious questions about Jackson’s choice of this particular role for her return to the stage are: Why a male character at all and why Lear in particular? There are sufficiently good answers in her previous career to make the choice logical and purposeful. In the first place, Jackson is at her best when she is acting at one remove. Because of her two Oscars (for Women in Love in 1969 and A Touch of Class in 1973) and her period as a Hollywood star, it is easy to forget that Jackson is a creature of the early 1960s theatrical avant-garde. She was a member of Charles Marowitz and Peter Brook’s famous Theatre of Cruelty experimental company in 1964, which itself belonged to a wider revolt against dominant notions of realism in the theater. While American actors were steeped in the Method, with its emphasis on the need for the performer to become fully immersed in the character, Brook in particular was interested in ideas of alienation, which is really just another word for distance:

Alienation is the art of placing an action at a distance so that it can be judged objectively and so that it can be seen in relation to the world.

Glenda Jackson is the great actor of distance, the one who brought alienation to the masses. The reason she often seems so exotic in Hollywood movies is that while her fellow actors are burying themselves deep in their characters, she is at a slight, almost imperceptible angle to hers. There is a gap in which Jackson’s own presence—sardonic, knowing, mysterious, and impossibly sexy—hovers like a kind of force field around the character.


That distance is more obvious when there is some clear barrier between the actor and the role, as there is when a woman plays the king. Two particular examples seem to have a special meaning for Jackson’s Lear. One is her breakthrough performance in 1964 in the production that crowned the Theatre of Cruelty season, Brook’s staging of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. Jackson played the assassin Charlotte Corday in a mesmerizing performance happily preserved in Brook’s subsequent film of the show. The distance is built into the role—Jackson plays a patient at the Charenton asylum who is in turn playing Corday in a production directed by another inmate, the Marquis de Sade. She is a narcoleptic, falling in and out of consciousness, moving like a sleepwalker, at once barely present and utterly unstoppable. One of the joys of Jackson’s Lear is that it circles back to this first great performance, returning to another character who moves in and out of rational consciousness, who is reduced to nothing, and who yet commands our utmost attention. It reconnects two ends of a life in the theater.

The other role that chimes with Jackson’s Lear is her Elizabeth I in the six-part BBC television costume drama Elizabeth R in 1971. Jackson is suitably commanding throughout, but she is at her most astonishing toward the very end of the series, when she is playing, at the age of thirty-five, an ancient, decrepit, half-demented monarch whose kingdom is slipping from her grasp. As if her own young age did not create enough of a distance, her Elizabeth is at this stage a grotesque, highly theatrical figure, her face a mask of white makeup, daubed with rouge and crookedly painted eyebrows, her high forehead and sharp nose making her sexless to the point of androgyny. There is a scene in which she stands silently for what we understand to be a very long time with her finger in her mouth, oblivious to the business around her, as much a somnambulist in her way as Charlotte Corday or, in his madness, Lear.

Jackson’s Lear can be seen in some respects as a revisiting—even a fusion—of these performances. It would be misleading to describe Deborah Warner’s vibrant and fluent production as an homage to the Theatre of Cruelty, but it revels openly in the tradition of Peter Brook. Brook’s longtime collaborator Jean Kalman is codesigner with Warner, and the open white stage, white light, movable white panels, and self-evident effects (the scenes numbered for us in projections onto the stage, actors carrying chairs on and off, visual effects that display their own mechanics, the trappings of a rough rehearsal with which we begin, a playing up of Grand Guignol grotesqueries, as when Gloucester’s plucked-out eye is thrown into the audience) are all in the same alienating terrain as the Marat/Sade, as if Jackson were being consciously welcomed back to where she began.

The parallels with the declining Elizabeth, meanwhile, are obvious enough to be taken for granted. In a sense, Lear carries less distance for Jackson simply because both of them are “fourscore and upward.” Jackson is now acting her age, a rare enough feat with such a prodigious part. But a woman playing a man (without ever stooping to male impersonation) is itself enough to hold us slightly at bay and force us to be aware all the time of the performance as a performance.

Yet there is also a more specific logic behind the choice of Lear. If you think of words that attach themselves to Jackson’s acting, the one that comes first to mind is authority. And King Lear is all about authority. It moves from the ultimate display of royal power, Lear’s capricious parceling out of his kingdom as if were a personal possession, to the most scathing burlesque of authority in all literature, the mad Lear’s evocation of a beggar running from a farmer’s dog: “there thou mightst behold the great image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office.” Hence the paradox of playing Lear: the greater the sense of authority the actor can convey, the more absurd it becomes when it empties out before our eyes and the more poignant seems its hollow wreckage. Jackson, elevated, commanding, distant, is as lofty a creature as we could imagine on stage, a mistress of the universe—and therefore wonderfully absurd and heartbreakingly poignant.


Jackson establishes her authority almost immediately in her opening scene with two gestures, one physical and one verbal. For much of her opening dialogue, she sits with her back to the audience. Alienation doesn’t come much more direct than that—we are rudely dismissed as people of no account. She is so wrapped up in the egotistical game of dividing up her kingdom and listening to the fulsome tributes of Regan and Goneril that she does not deign to speak in our direction. And in her first speech, Jackson takes a phrase of Lear’s that seems a matter of mere resignation—“while we/Unburdened crawl toward death”—and twists and elongates it into a jovial, sarcastic playfulness. Its meaning is reversed: this old man has no intention of crawling to, or before, anyone, even death itself. Already we are off on a roller-coaster ride. Over the following minutes, Jackson’s Lear is monstrously savage in banishing Cordelia, then blithely cheery in issuing decrees about the honors he will retain, then terrifying in his rage at the protesting Kent, then calmly indifferent again.

What is unfolding here is Jackson’s deeply intelligent reading of the dynamics of the play. The obvious way to think of Lear’s journey is along a line from control (at the beginning) to folly (giving up the kingship) to madness (on the heath). But Jackson gives us the sense of a Lear who is, in truth, already mad. She does not so much transform herself over the course of the play as transform herself moment to moment within it. She is magnificently unstable, switching and spinning in emotional pirouettes. And what she seems unhinged by is not the giving up of power but the experience of power itself.

In this play, power makes everybody crazy (Regan and Goneril, for example, suddenly go sex-mad), and Lear has had it for a long lifetime. The Lear she gives us from the start is someone whose mental, emotional, and ethical compass has been driven haywire by fawning and obedience. In this, the thought inevitably occurs that Jackson’s twenty-three years in politics, some of it on the fringes of the court of Tony Blair, have not been, from an artistic point of view, a total waste.

It is one thing to read the play like this but quite another to embody that reading without making the whole thing incoherent and hollow. For if Lear changes from moment to moment, it can only be because there is nothing there to begin with, no fixed core of character to be revealed. This, precisely, is where the courage of Jackson’s performance lies. She is willing to risk a Lear who does not have a character but who must, rather, discover one. Instead of Cortázar’s “absolute presence” of the divine Glenda, she begins almost with an absolute absence. Her performance is a kind of double exposure: she exposes Lear’s emptiness and then exposes him to the suffering that will fill it. She gives us, against the grain of Lear’s claim that “nothing will come of nothing,” a nobody who becomes a somebody, albeit through the weight of his pain.

Jackson can do this because, uniquely, she is the mistress of each of the two traditions that were so much at odds when she began her career: the avant-garde and the classical. The avant-garde is against the imposition of too much coherence and in favor of a notion of theater as a sequence of separate moments, often in tension with each other. It was Brook, in his introduction to Marat/Sade, who described a play as “a series of impressions; little dabs, one after another, fragments of information or feeling…often several at a time, often crowding, jostling, overlapping one another.”

In this, Jackson’s Lear, emotionally fragmentary and crowded with constantly shifting moods, is perfectly Brookian. It is held together by oppositions that she keeps in the air simultaneously. One is between authority and insignificance, her extraordinary ability to retain the habit of commanding the space she occupies even as her place within it is shrinking to nothing. The other, closely related, is the opposition between her voice and her body. What we see and what we hear are very different, and it is this difference that opens up the gap through which, for all her rebarbative distance, sympathy enters in.

Warner’s casting is clever in one simple but highly potent respect. The stage is filled with men who are young or big or both. Rhys Ifans’s Fool, while beautifully melancholy, is a large, loud, forceful, sometimes even loutish presence. Even Kent, generally thought of as relatively old, is played by the vigorous and youthful Sargon Yelda. Jackson’s body, by contrast, is small and thin and stooped, and in the third act, when her sticklike legs are bare, she is a little bird that might be blown away in the storm. But her voice can still outroar the tempest. Her rich, mighty contralto, plumbing the deepest tones of the female range, is remarkably undiminished. It is still one of the great voices of the theater, and it has a history that takes us back fifty years. We see an old, declining body. We hear a young, vigorous voice. The effect is constantly startling, generating that mysterious friction that makes Jackson so electrifying.

But just as this voice creates the strangeness of the avant-garde, it is also supremely classical. Jackson is a thrilling surfer of Shakespeare’s blank verse, able to stay on her feet while cresting its high waves and plunging down its slopes. And in the Old Vic, which was the theater of John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Laurence Olivier, one cannot avoid the thought that she is also their truest successor as a master of Shakespeare’s music.

There is an irony here: Jackson’s early place was with those like Brook who broke the old star system of Shakespeare productions dominated by a great man. Now she has managed simultaneously to reconnect us to the energies that broke that system and to give it one last glorious revival. Perhaps it is only a great woman who could dare to restore the lost theater of the great men.