NEW YORK — I don’t know that I’ve seen anyone as tiny as Glenda Jackson take up as much psychic space on a stage, or in a room, or in person. In the new production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which opens April 4 at Broadway’s Cort Theater after weeks of previews, the diminutive 82-year-old acting legend is physically dwarfed by the rest of the cast, including Ruth Wilson (“The Affair”), playing both Cordelia and the Fool, and tall drinks of water Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O’Sullivan as Lear’s perfidious older daughters, Goneril and Regan.
Yet Jackson dominates the play’s first half with imperious power, and she holds the audience for 3½ riveting hours as that power is slowly and cruelly stripped away. Tellingly, the actress isn’t playing Lear as a woman, or as a woman playing a man. She simply is Lear, the Bard’s Lear, beyond gender but not beyond human tragedy.
“The thing that stuck with me when I was a member of Parliament,” Jackson says — the actress represented London’s Highgate and Hampstead districts from 1992 to 2015 — “it was part of my responsibilities to visit old people’s homes. And what I found was that as we get older the kind of absolute barriers that define gender begin to fray. They begin to get smoky. I found that quite useful.”
On a rainy Manhattan Sunday, she is holding court at a diner on the Upper East Side, exuding a sort of Royal Dramatic force field that keeps waiters, intruders, distant chatter at bay. She is rumored, like Lear, to not suffer fools gladly, but her manner this morning is hearty and bluff, occasionally dismissive in a way appropriate to her status and not at all bothersome. Her voice is a cultivated, agreeable growl. She has a tendency to respond to the question she wants to answer rather than the one she has been asked. An interlocutor doesn’t mind. Respect must be paid.
Jackson played Lear three years ago at London’s Old Vic, in a production different from the current New York version, directed by Sam Gold. Since then, she’s won a Tony for the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.” This is fairly impressive for a woman who left Parliament after 23 years as a Labor MP thoroughly convinced no one would want to see her act again. But when has Glenda Jackson not been impressive?
She won her first best actress Oscar at 33, as Gudrun in Ken Russell’s 1969 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love.” She then became an unlikely star of Hollywood romantic comedies, winning a second Oscar for “A Touch of Class” (1973). By then, she’d also won two Emmys as Queen Elizabeth I in the BBC/”Masterpiece” Theatre miniseries “Elizabeth R,” a commanding, shaved-head performance that became a benchmark for future Elizabeths.
How big a celebrity was Jackson? She appeared on “The Muppet Show.” Yet after quitting acting in 1992 to successfully run for Parliament — she wanted to push back against the policies of Margaret Thatcher, whom she loathed — Jackson has returned to performance simultaneously celebrated by those lucky enough to see her on a stage and forgotten by the mass American audience.
At the diner, a starry-eyed woman approaches the table, practically kneeling before the queen; she had seen “King Lear” the day before and wanted to simply thank Jackson for the experience. “I’m sure people do this to you all the time,” the woman says. “Well, they don’t recognize me, usually,” responds Jackson. After the woman departs, she confides, quite happily, “I mean, nobody recognizes me. Why would they? I can go anywhere, do anything, it’s no problem for me.”
What is interesting about her playing of Lear, here and in England, is not that a woman is in the role but that nobody is batting an eye about it. Far more notable to audiences and critics is the play’s fierce political relevance. Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” at a time of chaos: Elizabeth I dead, James I an unready new king, Guy Fawkes plotting to blow up Parliament. With Brexit over there and Trump over here, a play about gilded egotism, delusional governance, dysfunctional royal families, and bad faith all around is like watching the nightly news.
When in Act IV, scene I Gloucester sighs “ ’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind,” audiences at the Cort have been bursting into applause. At the matinee I attended, the response was more startling: The entire theater thrummed with a low, spontaneous moan of agreement.
None of which is surprising to the star. “Shakespeare is one of the — well, he is the most contemporary dramatist in the world,” Jackson says. “Because human nature is immutable, the tropes within this play reverberate still. The most obvious one is the millennials: You know, [an older generation] saying they won’t give [a younger generation] money until they’re too old to enjoy it. And there’s so much in it that’s just [Shakespeare] pursuing his three central questions: Who are we, what are we, why are we? That hasn’t changed.”
Jackson is a performer absolutely focused on the idea that the play’s the thing; all else is distraction. (She was married once for about 20 years and has a son, born four months after “Women in Love” wrapped.) And the play never stops being discovered. “Oh, every performance is the first time you’ve done it, and if you find the energy in the play, the play just carries you forward,” Jackson insists. She’s very patient, very certain, and the only time her dander gets up is when she surveys the sorry state of her country as it slouches toward Brexit — or something.
This is all the more painful for involving her friends and former colleagues, “I look at that chamber in which I sat for 23 years,” Jackson says, “and I see faces I know, people I thought I knew, and they have gone completely mad. What in the name of all that’s holy do they think they’re doing?
“I think everybody is just in a state of total and utter bewilderment at this obduracy which is being motivated not by any real commitment to what democracy means. It’s a kind of artificial egotism, isn’t it?” which of course brings her back to Lear and the playing of a man, as she puts it, ”to whom no one has ever said No.”
Are her film days over? Jackson loved making movies — “the camera is absolutely obsessed with you” — but got the willies from her time in Los Angeles in the 1970s. “It’s like a set waiting to be struck. And you can’t walk anywhere, because the police stop you and ask you what you’re doing. But I was really impressed with the standard of work. We were doing ‘House Calls’ [the 1978 comedy with Walter Matthau], and it was a scene outside, and the studio’s grounds are enormous. And I said to somebody, well, where’s the generator, how are they going to film this? At which point, a man walked past me, bent down, lifted the grass and plugged something in. Can you believe it? I couldn’t.” She allows herself a dark, satisfied chortle at the memory.
If the writing is good, she’d consider another movie, or perhaps TV. Still, “I must be honest here,” Jackson says. “I see myself on film, and my viewing is utterly subjective. I look at myself and I think, ‘Why the [expletive] did you decide to do that?’ It’s too late, you can’t change it.” She chortles again.
That life has long been stowed away in the trunk of an actor’s memories. And the Oscars? They’re . . . somewhere. “One is upstairs in the attic,” she says, after thinking for a moment. “And one of my nephews, who is now a father himself, asked if he could borrow one for something they are doing at his school. I think it’s in his garage. But my mother, who kept all my awards on the sideboard in the front room, used to polish them within an inch of their life, and the gold comes off very easily and it’s base metal underneath.
“I think that’s a very good allegory.”
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@tyburr.