Glenda Jackson

Glenda Jackson – an English icon and is currently triumphing on Broadway

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Glenda Jackson – an English icon and is currently triumphing on Broadway

Photography, (King Lear) Brigitte Lacombe, courtesy The Cort Theatre

Glenda Jackson, an English icon, ferocious actress and former firebrand politician, currently happens to be triumphing on Broadway. Turning 83 on May 9th, Jackson is starring as the title character in a revival of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

My wife, Rachel Sa, and I will attend, with tickets already purchased for Jackson’s limited run at The Cort Theatre. To say that we are giddy with anticipation is a profound understatement. This is especially true, because Jackson has had such a remarkable stage and screen career, even with a 23-year hiatus to become a British Member of Parliament.

But first a word about the late Katharine Hepburn. I find myself remembering her now, because in the winter of 1981/1982, just as she was winning her fourth Oscar as best actress, Hepburn also appeared on the broadway stage. She starred as Margaret Mary Elderdice in the West Side Waltz at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Hepburn turned 75 during that engagement.

West Side Waltz was written by Ernest Thompson, who also created On Golden Pond, both for the stage and the screen. Hepburn won her final Oscar for her riveting performance in the film version.

Sadly, West Side Waltz was a mediocrity, yet Hepburn broke through the tremulous voice she had gained with age and proved to be mesmerizing. I know, I was there. New York Times critic Walter Kerr best summed it up, “One mysterious thing she has learned to do is breathe unchallengeable life into lifeless lines.”

There are no lifeless lines in King Lear. The Bard took care of that 413 years ago. As for Jackson’s performance, I am eager to see what havoc she wreaks in director Sam Gold’s spare, and modernized, version of this famous tragedy. “The play is a Mount Everest,” Jackson told Vogue. “It goes from the gutter to the peak of the highest mountain in the world – it’s all there.”

It has always been all there for Jackson. Witness her monumental performance as another titan, Queen Elizabeth I, in the BBC’s 1971 television serial, Elizabeth R. From teenaged princess through to Elizabeth’s ravaged death at 69 in 1603, Jackson embodied the survivor spirit of the legendary virgin Queen. She ‘aged’ through the role with the help of extensive makeup and major shifts in attitude.

Jackson won two Emmy Awards for Elizabeth R. She also won two Academy Awards for her film work, out of four nominations, all in her early career years. Disdaining awards, Jackson did not show up for either Oscar win – for Women in Love (1969) and A Touch of Class (1973). She was also Oscar-nominated for Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) and Hedda (1975). Some viewers would have also nominated her for playing Elizabeth I again in Mary, Queen of Scots, with Vanessa Redgrave as the doomed Mary.

Experiencing Jackson as Lear should be a revelation. When I saw Hepburn, I sat in the back row of the Barrymore. For King Lear, we have front-row centre seats. Might as well be part of the spectacle.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.


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