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King Lear at The Old Vic

Alice Dickerson

As she returns to the stage after a long absence, this is Glenda Jackson's show to steal - and she does so triumphantly.

For any actor to play Lear is both a privilege and challenge. To do so after an absence from the stage of nearly a quarter of a century, and at the age of 80, is noteworthy. And to do so and deliver one of the most memorable renditions of Lear in recent times, as Glenda Jackson does, is remarkable.

As Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks and Rhys Ifans all feature on the cast list alongside Jackson there was a risk that this production was too star-studded, ranking celebrity above suitability for the role. Imrie and Horrocks as Goneril and Regan provide strong enough performances to match that of Jackson as their father, and ensure that the different characteristics of the two elder sisters are well realised. Yet it is Ifans, in brilliant casting as the Fool, who does most to prove that he is on the billing not for his name alone. His Fool is equally sympathetic and ridiculous, aptly dressed in a torn and tattered superman costume.

Deborah Warner's interpretation is stark and modern but its bawdiness and dark humour harks back to the play's origins. There is plenty of innuendo and rather a lot of (mostly non-gratuitous) nudity. The most gruesome of scenes when Gloucester's eyes are gouged out is at once both macabre and slapstick in its delivery.

There are times when some of the cast could have delivered more measured performances; in particular Harry Melling as Edgar, the wronged son of Gloucester, although he calmed down in time to deliver a rather good soliloquy. And, given the largely bare, stripped back staging, one wonders why the storm scenes were so over the top, involving a combination of sound effects, dramatic lighting and sheets of plastic that wouldn't have looked out of place in a high school production.

Much could be made of the obvious fact that Lear is male and Jackson female, but her incredible on-stage energy ensures that her gender is of no significance. She has been performing in a different world, just over the river from The Old Vic, for much of the past 25 years but Glenda Jackson's acting ability has far from diminished in the intervening years.

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