Applause / Glenda Jackson burns up Broadway
He is 455 years old on April 23, the same date on which he died 52 years later — but as much alive today as when he lived.
That would be William Shakespeare (1564-1616), writer of some 39 plays and 154 sonnets.
Unfortunately, the man known as the Bard of Avon has also been dubbed the Bane of Students. Yet help is on the way, thanks to Washington D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library, which houses the world’s largest collection of the playwright’s materials and offers information essential to schools, scholars and the general public.
Its goal, per its website, is to engage “students in active reading, speaking, listening and writing so that they develop rich literacy - and a sense of ownership in the language.”
Let’s remember: these are plays to be performed, not just read. Their relevancy is unmistakable. The writer whom Yale professor Harold Bloom credits with the “invention of the human,” dealt with, as Sean McNall, artistic director of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival put it, “the burning social questions in today’s dysfunctional society — the status of women, class inequality, racism, intolerance, crime, war, disease.”
Profound as he remains, the Bard didn’t forget the groundlings’ appetite for melodrama. Are we moderns any different?
Take “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” a new play currently on Broadway that’s a followup to Shakespeare’s bloodiest work. Nathan Lane stars as a custodian charged with cleaning up bodies strewn about after murders, dismemberment and cannibalism.
Almost as bloody is the towering “King Lear,” starring the great Glenda Jackson now burning up Broadway in the title role. Jackson’s commanding performance as a familiar-sounding, narcissistic, bullying leader knows no bounds, whether of gender or physicality.
The weathered face has seen many trials. The hands send signals that demand loyalty. The mind has room for affairs of state but not of the heart. Unmistakably in charge, she strides the stage as a Colossus, her mind sharp until what she fears most — madness — brings her down as surely as it eventually lifts her up to self-knowledge.
The story is familiar: Lear, king of Britain, deciding to retire, resolves to divide his kingdom equally among his three daughters. To assure their loyalty, he demands they declare how much they love him.
Two offspring, Goneril and Regan, glibly exaggerate their affection, receiving chunks of territory as a reward. But the third, the youngest and most cherished daughter, Cordelia, says she loves her father according to her bond but must save some love for her future husband.
“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth,” she says. Incensed, Lear cuts off her inheritance.
Lear, now powerless, faces a series of travails. Helpless, he rages against a tremendous storm before succumbing to an inevitable and pitiful ending.
A tragedy with so many themes — parents and children, the nihilism and madness of life, the limits of love and lechery, the infirmities of age, alienation, treachery, betrayal — the play’s achievement is monumental and monumentally challenging to any director and to any actor brave enough to tackle the title role.
Basically, like all great plays, it’s a tale about society’s central unit, the family. Not only is Lear besieged by thankless children, so, too, is his friend, the Duke of Gloucester, faced with Edmund, his bastard son, who is out to ruin his own half brother, the compassionate Edgar.
Although director Sam Gold’s production is not exactly memorable, in its second half at least, it settles down enough to become both a moving and uplifting tale of humanity lost and re-gained. Muddying events, however, is a distracting quartet of musicians playing Philip Glass’s original score, upstaging even the storm scene.
When we get to the reconciliation scenes — Gloucester and Lear, Lear and Cordelia— “the wheel is come full circle” and the evening is most touching. At last, what may be taken as the play’s telling word, “Nothing,” resolves itself in the idea that “men must endure,” that it is the “smell of mortality” that accompanies us from cradle to grave.
Besides Jackson’s, several performances stand out, especially Ruth Wilson’s as both the loving Cordelia and a cockney Fool. Restrained as the daughter, jaunty as the Fool, she underpins both characters with sadness and unrequited love.
Also fine are Pedro Pascal as the villainous Edmund, Sean Carvajal as the loyal Edgar, John Douglas Thompson as the lucid Kent and Matthew Maher as the sycophantic Oswald. As the evil sisters, Goneril and Regan, luridly costumed Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O’Sullivan play their characters as well-bred sensualists.
Miriam Buether’s set is garish Trumpian gold, while Ann Roth’s costumes are a mishmash, culminating in the Fool’s American flag socks. After all, says the production, is a dysfunctional palace any different from a dysfunctional White House?
Information about the Folger Library is at www.folger.edu
David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.
Curtain Call, Stamford “I Hate Hamlet,” Sterling Farms , 1349 Newfield Ave., May 2-19 (www.curtaincallinc.com, 203-329-8207)
Shakespeare on the Sound, Pinkney Park. Rowayton: "Twelfth Night," June 20-July 7. Free on Tuesdays. (www.shakespeareonthesound.org, 203-299-1300)
“Much Ado About Nothing,” Sterling Farms, 1349 Newfield Ave, July 1-21. Free. (www.curtaincallinc.com, 203-329-8207)
Elm Shakespeare, Edgerton Park, New Haven: “A Comedy of Errors,” Aug. 15-Sept. 1. Free. (www.elmshakespeare.org, 203-392-8882)
“King Lear” is at the Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th St. (www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200)
“Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” is at the Booth Theater, 222 W. 45th St., (www.telecharge.com, 212-239-6200)
Sonnet Slam: readings of all 154 sonnets. Riverside Church, 91 Claremont Ave., April 26. Free. (www.sonnetslam.com)
“The Tempest” is at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., April 29-May 19. Free. (www.pubictheater.org, 212-539-8500)
Shakespeare in the Park: “Much Ado About Nothing” (May 21-June 23), “Coriolanus” (July16-August 11) Central Park. Free. (www.publictheater.org, 212-539-8500)
Playing Shakespeare: “Translating” the plays into contemporary language. Classic Stage Co., 136 E. 113th St., May 29-June 30. $25. (www.classicstage.org)
“Much Ado About Nothing” (June 9-Aug. 31), “Cymbeline” (June 11-July 27)
Hudson Valley Shakespeare, Boscobel, Garrison, NY. (www.HVShakespeare.org)