Review: King Lear, Old Vic

“’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind”

Though no spring chicken myself, I’m not quite the right age to be truly excited about Oscar winning actress-turned politician-turned actress again Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage. I was more intrigued than truly excited when she was announced in the title role of Deborah Warner’s King Lear for the Old Vic for though I’m well aware of who she is, her film and TV credits never broke through into what I was watching either back then or since. (Feel free to recommend her must-see performances – I’ll add them to the list of things I’ll get round to watching one day.)

But I’m always here for casting decisions that shake the established order somewhat and with Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks and Rhys Ifans in the cast too, there was no chance I wouldn’t go see this. Full disclosure though, I went to the final £10 preview so treat this review how you will. For it is simultaneously an effortful and frustratingly vague production that never truly convinces of the attempted scope of its artistic vision. Fortunately, this often-times ephemeral and occasionally perplexing Lear is anchored by a striking performance from Jackson.


She’s ferociously intense from the outset and even as vulnerabilities are layered in, there’s an elemental force about her that is just thrilling to watch. It’s an exciting thought indeed that this might herald further stage work from her as the long-dormant acting muscle is stretched to reveal such strength. Around her though, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed at characterisations that don’t feel any fully fleshed-out and thought-through. 

From Simon Manyonda’s Edmund and Harry Melling’s Edgar both dropping trou (the family that moons together…) to Imrie’s Goneril and Horrocks’ Regan and their overcooked villainy (oh no they’re not…), Warner’s production lacks the considered specificity to elevate the work being put in. It’s long, and crucially it feels it too, in the bright white space of Warner and Jean Kalman’s set design, and too often you’re left questioning the decisions made – Edmund is skipping because… 

There are moments that cohere beautifully – the final sequences are truly moving and I enjoyed Morfydd Clark’s Cordelia and even Ifans’ extravagances as a very modern Fool. But for all the revelatory splendour of Jackson’s performance, this Lear is undoubtedly hard work and a reminder that, in all honesty, I’m not the biggest fan of this play at all.

Running time: 3 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 3rd December

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