For decades, people have tried to describe Glenda Jackson: her face, her voice, her temperament, her technique. Though many have attempted, what words fail to fully capture is the actor’s particular sort of power. It’s apparent as soon as you sit down with her, though she doesn’t always intend for you to feel it. Jackson, both on stage and in person, is so clearly a woman steeped in her prowess, and New York audiences—for the second Broadway season in a row—have the opportunity to witness it as she plays one of theater’s most robust and complex roles.
The veteran actor comments on “King Lear” the same way she comments on all of Shakespeare’s work: with reverence. A veteran interpreter of the Bard, she refers to him as “the greatest contemporary dramatist there is”—mainly because of his ability to capture the “immutable” human condition.
“We have over the centuries managed to improve the human condition, but we’re still the same as people,” she says over mid-morning coffee at an Upper East Side diner.
Directed by Sam Gold, this season’s “Lear” is fresh while still feeling familiar. That is to say, it’s right at home in today’s political climate: gaudy, over-the-top, and enveloped in gold (courtesy of Miriam Buether’s set design and Jane Cox’s lighting design). Dementia, debauchery, and desolation are all in the text and, therefore, on the stage. And Jackson is at the center, building it up to tear it down.
The storyline is especially suited to Jackson’s life thus far: the 83-year-old famously retired from her acting career to run as an MP in the British House of Commons, a position she held for 23 years before standing down in 2015. She has since returned to acting, first in a BBC radio drama, then in the Old Vic’s 2016 “King Lear,” followed by Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” last Broadway season, a role that earned her her first Tony Award after five nominations over five decades.
Now, Jackson is headlining the classic Shakespeare tragedy at the Cort Theatre, a limited engagement now through July 7 alongside a cast that includes Ruth Wilson, Pedro Pascal, Jayne Houdyshell, Elizabeth Marvel, and Aisling O’Sullivan.
“There isn’t a single character that isn’t fascinating in that play,” she says, “and one of the most fascinating things about it are the close-ups of what life is like now.”
We take a look at what life looks like for Jackson at the moment.
I read a line from Lawrence Olivier about playing Lear; he said the character is untouchable when you’re younger—it doesn’t make any sense. But at 75, when he did it, he was playing his own life.
Absolutely. It’s so interesting you should say that, because I did one of the morning shows for public radio, and the guy who was interviewing me said, “I read ‘Lear’ in school…and I thought, Oh, come on. So what? They all go crazy. It’s just karma.” He said, “Now, in my late 40s and 50s, I think, Yeah, I recognize it now.”
I think people, whether it’s applicable or not, also want to attach it to the current political climate.
Oh, well, yeah. That’s a given. He nails it, doesn’t he, Shakespeare? [Laughs] He nails that. And at a time when it was extremely dangerous to have a political opinion.
The richness of Shakespeare is in the text; you’re pulling directly from it. But there are thousands of interpretations of Lear. How do you make it yours?
My rule is you have to view the world through the character’s eyes. You can’t bring your personal judgmental approach to it. There is this extraordinary energy in the play, which, if you manage to tap into it, it’s like being on a fucking jet plane and it just carries you straight through.
He’s a man who no one has ever said no to all his life. He has no self-pity. He has no fear, entirely because of the way he’s been raised, and he makes decisions rooted in the basis that no one has ever said no to him. And somebody does say no to him, and that shock is such that it sets off this kind of avalanche of mistakes. But what is truly fascinating is that this avalanche is not just him rolling down the mountain; it produces these reactions from all the people around him. It is tragic because the one thing about him, it seems to me, is that he’s never really loved, and he does at the end, and it’s all too late. It is that thing of presumptions of self in a way, which he has been taught by virtue of to whom he was born, this sort of accident of birth.
One of the things I found really interesting when I was still a member of Parliament, when we had to visit old people’s homes they sent us to and things like that—because people [have] said to me, “How do you approach it, a woman playing a man?”—one of the things that was really fascinating was, as we grow older, the absolute gender definitions begin to fray. They begin to crack, they begin to get a little bit foggy. A woman said to me outside the theatre, “I’ve seen ‘Lear’ many, many times and it’s the first time I’ve seen a maternal side to him.” And I thought That’s really interesting, isn’t it? But then, if you think about it, the other end of the age scale, when babies are born, we teach them whether they’re boys or girls, don’t we? At the other end, it begins to fray, and that I find very useful.
No. If you take anything home, you haven’t done your job properly. It all has to be done on the stage.
Not in this play, but I felt I’ve taken stuff home. There must’ve been, otherwise I wouldn’t have learned that lesson, would I? But probably a bit further back.
How has working with directors Deborah Warner at the Old Vic and Sam Gold on Broadway helped you pull the most of the character out of the story?
It doesn’t really work like that for me. I tend automatically to disagree with what directors say and directors automatically disagree with what I say, and so that creates a kind of energy pull, which can be quite useful. But to be brutally honest, when it matters, when we the actors perform the play, the director has no part in it.
Between “King Lear,” the BBC radio show, and Albee last year, were there any changes or relearning that you had to do after 23 years away from the stage?
I was particularly anxious about “Lear.” I didn’t think I’d have the physical or vocal strength for it, but those are things you can work on. I used to swim every day. I was talking to a friend and I said, “What if I’ve forgotten how?” And she said, “Oh, come on. It’s like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it.” So, that calmed me down.
I believed it because there’s something very fascinating about acting in the theater. Certainly, usually, one’s social exchanges go through a rather formal pattern, don’t they? You can’t do that when you’re acting. You have to dig deeper much more quickly. So, that produces its own benefits. I’ve bumped into people who I haven’t seen for decades and it is though you’ve just walked out of the same coffee shop. That kind of closeness is…
Absolutely. You put it perfectly.
No, that’s how I feel with actors that I’ve worked with, and that makes a difference when you actually come to do it. And the Vic was a theater I’ve worked in before, as well. But they’re all empty spaces and your needs are always the same; what they demand of you is always the same.
Every performance is the first performance. [Laughs] If I don’t feel nervous, I get really anxious.
Is that just a matter of getting into the groove of the performance, then, or getting back into the character, or—
Every performance is the first performance. You’ve never played to that audience before. It’s a new day, a new term, and you’re not doing it on your own. We’re all responsible for the whole play. A large or small part, that’s our shared responsibility, and so that’s how it is.
Do you find anything surprising after 23 years outside the industry, either in collaboration with other people or changes within the industry?
The thing that hasn’t changed over all the decades is that contemporary writers, with the exception of Shakespeare, don’t find women interesting. We are still, as a gender, adjuncts to the usually male dramatic driving force in contemporary plays, and I find that bewildering. I don’t know why they don’t find us interesting. Doors have opened for us. There have been major changes, and yet still, dramatists don’t find us interesting. Why don’t they find us interesting? I don’t get it. People have said to me, “Oh, there are more women dramatists.” Yeah, but—
Thank you! And there’s the other thing, which is absolutely intractable—things never change—if a woman is a success, whatever the field, she is presented as being the exception that proves the rule. If a woman fails, well, lo, they’re all useless. [Laughs] That’s still the response. Crazy.
Well, in a kind of convoluted way. No, I don’t think they do. I remember when I was first elected to Parliament, somebody said to me, “How’re you gonna manage? You’re there in this man’s club.” And I said, “But that’s been my experience all my life,” which was true. I’m just trying to think whether it makes one more aggressive or less. [Laughs] I can’t quite work out what that is. As someone who has been in the actual, practical area of politics in my own country, the egos that I saw walking up and down those corridors would not be tolerated in professional theater for 30 seconds. For someone to give you their vote in that sense, it’s a very humbling experience. They’re not just voting for you as the individual, obviously, they’re voting for your party, but it is immensely humbling in that sense. People have said to me outside the theater, “Oh, it’s such an honor to meet you,” and I think, No, it isn’t! You’re honoring me by coming to see me. I honor you because you actually give your hard-earned money to buy a ticket to see me doing what I want to do. I’m being a member of Parliament in that sense.
Well, the only thing that I think benefited me in that sense—when I was campaigning to be an MP, I’m paraphrasing, but people would say to me, “Well, I like your politics but don’t like your acting.” Or, they’d say, “Well, I like your acting but don’t like politics.” When I first came to America, I was with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and there was a report in the paper that had been conducted by psychiatrists, psychologists over a long period of time, and its conclusion was that after death, the thing that we as human beings fear most is public speaking. And I had that advantage. I wasn’t afraid to stand up and speak to a room full of strangers, so that was a benefit. But no, when I first went into Parliament, even my own party expected me either to be an airhead who knew nothing or some kind of operatic diva who would demand special treatment. They clearly know nothing about the realities of theater.
As far as that public perception, perception from colleagues or co-stars goes, does criticism affect you?
I always said to my staff: Tell me what I do wrong. The last thing you want are people who, all they ever do is praise you. That’s of no value whatsoever.
There are two things that have always puzzled me, and that’s less from notices but journalists who’ve said I’m frightening, which I find bewildering, and the other is that I speak in complete sentences, and that, again—don’t we all speak in complete sentences? It’s bizarre.
Oh, well, that wouldn’t surprise me. That wouldn’t surprise me. [Laughs]
I think of creative people; Writers look at a blank sheet of paper, musicians look at a blank sheet except with those five lines drawn on it, artists look at a blank canvas. And if you think about it, they stretch to eternity, don’t they? How do they put the boundaries in? The boundaries are put in for us [as actors], so although it may be a mountain we’re having to climb, at least we know where it is. So, I don’t really regard myself as being creative in that sense. Up to a point, it’s interpreting, isn’t it? But there are boundaries to that. You have to respect the play. If I think about this play, you learn more about your character quite often from what other characters say about your character than you do from the lines you actually say.
When it works, theater is a really unique experience. There are this group of strangers sitting in the dark and another group of strangers come on in the light, and, hopefully, an energy goes from the light into the dark and is strengthened and returned to the light. And if that works, you create a kind of perfect circle. That, of course, is the model of a perfect society, isn’t it? But then the curtain comes down and we all go home. [Laughs] And you do it all again the next time.
It’s amazing what people do take from—and in a curious kind of way, you’re responsible, but… I’m thinking of [when] I did a play [in 1966] with the RSC called “US” and its subject was the Vietnam War, and at the end of the play, an actor set fire, seemingly, to butterflies. And at this one particular performance, a woman got up from the front row—middle-aged, obviously upper middle class, immaculately dressed, tears pouring down her cheeks—climbed onto the stage, took the butterflies and the lighter out of the actor’s hand, turned to the audience, and said, “I’m not mad. I just wanted to show you there is something we can do,” and [got] back off the stage. The production always ended the same way: house lights went on, the actors went off, and the audience stayed and discussed what was seen because the Vietnam War was the only topic in the world. And there was nothing that any of us could do to help that woman dry her tears. Yet, we had created—not us exclusively, obviously the subject is what had done it for her—but those times when you think, you do this to people and then you just go home. [Laughs] Heartless! We’re heartless.
Do you have any advice as far as seeing the character through their eyes and tapping into that human instinct you were talking about?
Read the play! Shakespeare tells you, “Look with thine ears.” Read the words. He tells you what to do. He only ever asks three questions: Who are we? Why are we? What are we? And I’ve said, human nature is immutable. We don’t change. We like to think that we do, but we don’t. It’s that linkage with an audience that makes the difference.
A member of the cast said one night after a performance, she said, “They were really listening. I could feel them listening.” And that’s true. You can feel them listening. To go back to my model of a perfect society: energy from the light to the dark.
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Photographed by Matt Doyle in NYC on April 22.