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82-year-old Glenda Jackson’s King Lear is towering. But she can’t rescue a bungled show.

The new Broadway production gambles on a turbulent Trump allegory. It doesn’t always work.

Glenda Jackson as King Lear, center.
Glenda Jackson as King Lear, center.
Brigitte Lacombe/Cort Theater
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has drawn comparisons to Shakespeare’s famous madman, King Lear. Critics have cited Trump’s tendencies to demand ludicrous amounts of loyalty, to rashly kick people out of his service, and to ramble nonsensically in ways that make him seem a bit like a man in denial of — or perhaps coming all too rapidly to terms with — his own increasing insignificance, much like Lear himself.

Sam Gold, director of the new Broadway production of King Lear, starring Glenda Jackson as Lear in a rare gender-swapped performance, tackles this allegory head-on by essentially setting the story in Trump Tower. If audiences don’t immediately recognize the seat of Lear’s kingdom in the Cort Theater as the gleaming interior of the entrance to the famous skyscraper, they have two more visual cues to clue them in: the walls awash in bright gold — a color Trump is famously obsessed with — and the black-and-gold accents reminiscent of both Trump’s inauguration and the Trump Tower logo.

If none of that twigs, there’s still Lear himself — but looking for Trump in Jackson’s Lear is a paradoxical project. When the homage works, it really works. But when it doesn’t, which is, unfortunately, most of the time, it not only reveals the shortcomings of the Trump reference to begin with, but also the limitations of any approach to Shakespeare saddled to such an unsubtle allegory.

On the surface, King Lear is Trumpian enough — brash, full of rage and bellows. But to scrutinize Lear’s loud, angry side obscures its profound exploration of mortality, social collapse, and family dysfunction — all the things that make the play one of Shakespeare’s most sublime.

What we’ve got instead, despite the impressive ensemble assembled here — including Ruth Wilson, in the frequently double-cast role of Cordelia and Lear’s mysterious Fool, and Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal as one of Shakespeare’s most enjoyable villains — is a bit of a mess.

Gold’s King Lear has one saving grace: Its lead, Glenda Jackson, strides around like a gloriously exasperated mini-Valkyrie. That alone might be worth the price of the ticket.

In attempting to sum up the national political climate, the play turns chaotic and unfocused

In case you’re new to King Lear, the gist is this: A powerful, unhinged king subjects his entire kingdom to upheaval, thanks to the power struggles and manipulations of those close to the throne, including two of his own daughters, Goneril and Regan. A third daughter, Cordelia, Lear rashly disowns at the beginning of the play, a move which ultimately draws her husband, the king of France, into war with her sisters’ husbands as they all jockey for control over the ruined kingdom.

Complicating things is the parallel breakdown of familial relations between Lear’s trusted friend, the duke of Gloucester, and his two sons, the loyal Edgar and the illegitimate Edmund, whose desire for power leads Edmund to manipulate everyone and turn Goneril and Regan against each other.

Such a plot synopsis inevitably makes King Lear sound primarily like a story of political intrigue, but in its rawest state, it’s more like a psychological thriller. Though it pivots around the central plot question of what happens when a mad king sits on the throne, its main theme is existential: Lear’s awareness of his own impending mortality is the terrifying fissure in his sanity that cracks his world in two. His dementia heightens his intense personality; his own daughters claim that even before he went “mad,” he was a rash, navel-gazing king.

If this level of narcissism and intense irrationality is the default even before madness sets in, the play suggests, then who can say what madness really looks like in a head of state? This holds true, especially if the world’s “excellent foppery” — Edmund’s wry description of the appearance-obsessed, superficial aristocrats around him — makes it a stage where reality can be easily manipulated by anyone, with or without a senile king on the throne. Such manipulation ushers in a paradigm-altering nightmare world that utterly confounds one character after another — enough to drive anyone mad.

It’s easy to see why all of this might seem a ripe subject for examination in 2019. King Lear joins a steady trend of theater tackling the Trump era through Shakespeare that shows no sign of stopping. There’s even a fake news subplot that produces the wry, laugh-getting line, “report is changeable.”

But Gold’s production rarely seems to couple this notion — that King Lear is relevant for 2019 — with nuance. Everything seems designed to call attention to the Trump parallel. The busy, frantic staging and busy, frenetic pacing definitely summons the chaotic national scene to mind, but yields a lack of focus and confused action.

Ruth Wilson’s Fool wears a pair of prominently displayed American flag socks that she gratuitously points to during one speech, just to make sure we don’t miss the blatantly obvious point. Even the elegant onstage quartet, playing its elegant live score by the great Philip Glass, seems placed there as a nod to Trump’s love of finery and wastefulness rather than to serve the direction of King Lear’s overall mental decline.

This is all a shame, because there’s some interesting stuff happening onstage. To give credit where it’s due, this is a frequently funny production. It’s always good when a performance of King Lear gets to be wry and knowing, even as its characters are falling apart. (Pedro Pascal’s gleeful villainy as Edmond is an isolated pleasure.) Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O’Sullivan lend the two bickering sisters a Kardashian rudeness that’s easy to love.

Among the most exciting choices of this production is the use of multiple actors with hearing and speech impairments. Regan’s husband, the duke of Cornwall (Russell Harvard), is a deaf man who’s perpetually interacting both with the other characters onstage and with his interpreter, played by Deaf West director Michael Arden. Goneril’s aide Oswald is veteran theater actor Matthew Maher. Their presence allows Gold to visually draw out the play’s themes of thwarted, frustrated, misinterpreted, and deliberately misconstrued efforts at communication.

But there’s so much noise onstage that these details are lost to an unnecessary cacophony that often rebounds on the actors themselves. Oswald perpetually draws inappropriate laughter, while the building tension between Cornwall and his aide is muffled. When that tension finally erupts in an early moment of tragedy, it should be felt as one of the most charged moments in the performance — the point it becomes FUBAR. But again, the staging is so confused that the action isn’t even clear until the bodies start dropping. Similar moments plague the production from start to finish.

I fear that Gold may have been deliberately trying to create and mine all this confusion for the purpose of more Trumpian allegory. Jackson’s performance as Lear might have saved us from this — but even she, with all her force of will, can only do so much to combat this strangely directionless production.

King Lear is ostensibly a portrait of madness, but Jackson’s Lear is mainly mad as hell. Which of these is more Trumpian is anyone’s guess.

Jackson, fresh from a Tony win for last season’s Three Tall Women, is tackling Lear at a landmark career moment, and she brings all the authority of her legendary career to bear here. At 82, she is roughly around the same age as Lear himself — three years older than Ian McKellen’s Lear last season on the West End, a decade older than Sir Derek Jacobi when he performed Lear at BAM in 2011, and seven years older than Sir Laurence Olivier was when he committed his Lear to screen at age 75.

Jackson, shorter than everyone else onstage, strides around in her tuxedo, barking orders and snapping at everyone like a universal irascible grandparent. Instead of registering as madness, her brand of perpetual impatience lands more in the realm of “mad as hell” — with apologies to Bryan Cranston’s Network just a few blocks away. Her Lear is exasperated with everyone, and with himself most of all: for being mortal, for being frail, and for losing his grip over a family who is equally exasperated with him.

It’s impossible not to find all of this a little heartbreaking; ideally, though, one would find it extremely heartbreaking. But Jackson, acting her heart out and never missing a beat, just isn’t quite able to overcome all the odd pacing and distracting elements of this production. Even more unforgivable is that the banter between Lear and the Fool, which is among Shakespeare’s most brilliant, is converted into hasty, sloppy grandiosity on both sides, without regard for much more than empty irony. The same holds true for the storm, in which one of the most famous scenes in literary history is reduced to drowned-out shouts in the rain.

There’s probably enough pomp and gold backsplash here to satisfy anyone who just wants to say they saw Shakespeare on Broadway — as long as they don’t actually care about the contents of the performance. In fact, it’s precisely the kind of production that Trump himself would love. For the rest of us, however, this take on King Lear adds up to sound and fury: a turbulent tirade that rarely rises to the power of all-shaking thunder.

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