This past year, with the celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, has seen many a production of King Lear. Even with the production at the Old Vic, there is also another running at the Barbican at the very same time. But with the much anticipated return of Glenda Jackson to the stage, the Shakespeare celebrations seem to last.

Jackson was one of the first starlets of the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s, as well as winning two Academy Awards for Best Actress. Now eighty years old and having returned to acting from politics after a quarter of a century, she takes the title role here to which some would describe her as ‘Queen Lear’. Firstly, it’s important to get rid of the term ‘Queen’ when watching, nor is it important to find any specific masculine or feminine qualities in Jackson’s performance. For there is a real balance between both, in terms of her neutral clothing and stance to both exploring with lad culture at the end of the first of Shakespeare’s five acts as well as remaining open to expose her physical vulnerability. Considering her time away from the stage, Jackson delivers a truly strong performance. Agreed, she may reach her peak in her projection very early on. Her depth in her voice, however, in terms of enunciation and exploring her lower range remains timeless. Jackson is also not afraid in accentuating the cracks in her voice as well as her lack of physical stamina, making her presence brave and open throughout the duration.

When I say, ‘duration,’ however, it is indeed a real duration to watch this. Nearly four hours is simply too long for audiences. I’ve seen Lear performed in two and a half hours in the past, as well as having seen one-act Shakespeare plays throughout this year including the recent Tempest from the Donmar currently on at the King’s Cross Theatre. It also does not help from having the act and scene numbers projected on stage.

In terms of staging, there is none in terms of assisting to set the scene. There is no sense of location and time, and the main props are a couple of plastic chairs and benches, along with a fridge and ladder. Maybe it was trying to place emphasis on the dialogue and duration more, or maybe it was trying to seem ‘abstract,’ which for a play of 3 hours 45 minutes shouldn’t be needed. With no sense of setting, it’s difficult to find any connection between each character even if the stage is so vast. Considering the fundamental basis of this tragedy is about family, this lack of connection doesn’t work. The menacing influence of Goneril (Celia Imrie) and Regan (Jane Horrocks), for instance, becomes lost and the performances seem incredibly tamed down, with occasional moments forgetting how vital Regan seems to be in the sisters’ plot.

Harry Melling as Edgar is the energy needed to carry this production through. Lots of movement whilst never losing vocal projection, Melling’s performance provides sheer dynamism as a whole whilst strongly supporting Jackson. Someone with surprisingly too much dynamism, however, is Edmund (Simon Manyonda), with a lack or unpleasantness or scheming but instead having audience members laugh at his over-the-top movement. I question his choices of characterisation.

Overall, Deborah Warner’s version grows on you, with some terrific moments with the basic set towards Act Three and Four. Yet with a constant sense of disconnection between each character and lack of staging ideas, this production of Shakespeare’s tragedy has little to no sense of tragedy. Go with the intention to see a legend reborn (Jackson), and a new one arising (Melling).

Reviewed by Barry O’Reilly

Photo: Alastair Muir

KING LEAR plays at the Old Vic until 3 December 2016. Tickets