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Monstrous Regiment? Brava!
December/January 2016/17

Cracked soul: Glenda Jackson as King Lear (©MANUEL HARLAN)


British actresses are gobbling up traditionally male Shakespeare parts at a rate that might make us wonder whether Equity might soon have to campaign for Simon Russell Beale to be cast as Lady Macbeth in redress. Still: Big Will was great at many things, but gender balance was not one of them. Harriet Walter, in a new book on playing Shakespeare, Brutus and Other Heroines (Nick Hern Books, £12.99), points out that there are only six meaty roles for older women: Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Volumnia, the Nurse, Queen Margaret and The Winter’s Tale’s Paulina.

The gender-bending climax of her trilogy, after Julius Caesar and Henry IV, is The Tempest at the Donmar’s Kings Cross pop-up until December 17. Walter is one of our great classical female actors: a wiry, intense performer with an instinctive command of verse and a voice than can move between sweet modulation as the whimsical weaver of spells — and cold rage as Prospero, the ultimate helicopter parent.

Walter likes an all-female cast, she tells me, on the principle that shifting the gender of just the lead character while everyone else remains the same shifts the balance of a play in a way that is more tricky for the director. “Once you’ve got your head round the fact that all the parts are female, you don’t have to worry about it again.”

Walter plays a cold and angry rule-giving Prospero, commanding the stage, though the more tender encounters with his daughter are diminished. Even the “dreams are made on” speech is delivered with an edge of flat bitterness — a challenge to the usual conciliatory final tone. Phyllida Lloyd as director (yes, the one who gave us Mamma Mia! on screen) brings nifty cinematographic tricks, making the audience provide the lighting at one point (I won’t spoil how, but it is a magical moment). My main beef is that the text is so savagely cut that the play is hard to follow.

No such liberties are taken with Glenda Jackson’s King Lear at the Old Vic. Lank-haired and dry of voice, the rasping grande dame returns to the canon, aged 80, after a quarter-century away from the stage. Deborah Warner’s production has a spare setting, but a magnificent storm of black plastic sheeting and CGI thunderbolts. Any irreverent thoughts of Queen Lear are quickly forgotten: Jackson’s kingly red garments hang from coathanger shoulders. That famous voice is her main asset in charting the descent from autocratic (“know that we have divided in three our kingdom”) into raving, pleading and grieving, a cracked soul, whispering in the automated rhythms of grief and shock over dead Cordelia.

The award for best supporting fool goes to Rhys Ifans, a hipster jester dressed in a Superman costume with the erratic manner of a street performer with a cannabis habit. Ifans raps and flirts with the audience, throws camp jokes to unseen stagehands, breaks into a perfect Bob Dylan impersonation, complete with mouth organ, and is transformed as the storm descends into a white-faced clown so sinister that he could have walked out of Michael Haneke’s murderfest Funny Games.

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