Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 121
The great Glenda Jackson is back on the stage. In 1992, the Emmy and two-time Academy Award winner was elected to Parliament. She spent the next 23 years in Britain’s House of Commons. Since returning to theater in 2015, she’s played King Lear on London’s West End and won a Tony Award for her performance in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Now, she’s playing Lear again in a new production, directed by Sam Gold, on Broadway.
We were thrilled to get Glenda Jackson into the studio to talk about playing a king, opportunities for women in the arts, and the intricacies of her performance in the new production of King Lear. Jackson is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 14, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “What Have You Performed,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Technical help came from Robert Auld, Helena DeGroot, Deb Stathopulos, and Larry Josephson at The Radio Foundation studios in New York.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Spend more than 60 years in the public eye, and… you can understand how she ends up here.
[CLIP: Glenda Jackson in King Lear]
Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. That of course, was the great Glenda Jackson. I can’t begin to list all of the accolades and accomplishments in the life of Glenda Jackson. If you need it all spelled out, go to her Wikipedia page. It’s long.
In short though: Two academy Awards for Best Actress. Two Primetime Emmy Awards for her performance of Queen-Elizabeth-The-First on PBS in the 1970s. There’s also a Tony Award in there for Best Actress in a play. All that despite giving up acting entirely in 1992 to serve 23 years in the British House of Commons. She’s back in full force now. Performing on Broadway in a production of King Lear.
We had the great good fortune to get Glenda Jackson into the studio in New York to talk about playing a king after playing a queen, opportunities for women in the arts, and the intricacies of this new King Lear production.
We call this podcast: What Have You Performed? Glenda Jackson is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: You’ve played monarchs before. Queen Elizabeth the first for instance, for Elizabeth R. But this was your first king. My question was, do the two roles inform each other at all? Or, do you approach each monarch and each role with specificity? You know, that they’re apples and oranges, and not just because of gender?
GLENDA JACKSON: Well, another actor who I know and who played several kings was asked, “How do you play a king?” And he said, “You don’t have to, everybody does it for you.” ‘Cause they all stand up when you come into the room and they bow. And there’s an element of truth in that, of course. The basic difference here is that Elizabeth was a real ruler. Lear is a created character. The basics of his world are very unlike, actually, Elizabeth I’s world. No one has ever in his life said “No” to him. During her life, until she actually succeeded to the throne, her life was in serious question… almost—well not from the day she was born, but certainly when her mother was executed… that she would go the same way. That was not something that was ever present in Lear’s life.
BOGAEV: The reason I started with this is because I wanted to talk about the physicality of acting and embodying a role. And it’s interesting watching you as Lear, I very much feel that you’re a man. And a king. But I don’t feel as if you’re a woman trying to appear as a man.
[CLIP: Glenda Jackson in King Lear]
Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.
JACKSON: When I was a member of parliament, one of the duties or responsibilities that one had was to visit old people’s homes, day centers, things of that nature. One of the things I found most interesting was that as we get older, we, the human race, those barriers, or rather boundaries, which define our gender begin to get foggy. They drift out, you know, of rigid lining. Oddly enough, someone—you know, people very kindly wait outside the theater for autographs and things—and one of the members of the audience said to me, “I’ve seen this play many times. It’s the first time I’ve seen an aspect of the maternal in Lear.” Now I’m not deliberately playing maternal, but I do think about that, you know, gender-absolute being cracky.
BOGAEV: Yeah. It all seems to bleed into each other. And it’s interesting when you add this element of authority and power. And absolute authority and power—
BOGAEV: —that then crumbles. Harriet Walter, an actress I’m sure you know well, was on the podcast recently, and she was talking about her experience playing Brutus. She said, when you’re acting on stage, you’re playing these powerful men on stage in Shakespeare, the power infuses you, it infuses your body. She felt she naturally started taking up more physical space, just, she felt larger, therefore she looked larger. As opposed to trying to express that in some other way. And you experience, she said, the male privilege.
JACKSON: Oh, very much so, yes. But there is an extraordinary energy in Shakespeare’s plays and if you tap into that, that I think does, it… well, it obviously gives you that energy as well. And that is the most transformative thing of course are the words. But yes, it’s certainly there.
BOGAEV: It’s almost a push/pull though, with this gender-bending and being beyond gender. I notice—
JACKSON: You observe it. Forgive me for interrupting you. But it isn’t when you’re actually playing because, I mean, one of the basic rules, or certainly one of my basic rules, is you observe the world through the character’s eyes. You’re not judgmental about their opinions or, you know, likes and dislikes and things like that. And when you have that perspective, you know, it’s there. It’s positive. You don’t have to think of it as an external coat you’ve got to put on.
BOGAEV: I agree. But then society always comes back in. And places those boxes on you. And I was thinking of a critic who saw your production in London and he called you the “manliest” Lear he’d ever experienced. Which just, I read that and it just enraged me. I mean, I was so angered by that, that he would—he said that he interpreted—that he would interpret your unapologetic self-assurance as “manly.” As if women are not unapologetic or can’t be self-assured!
JACKSON: Listen, I mean, you know and I know, although there have been major advances made in the opportunities proffered to our gender—doors have opened—we are by no means equal. It is still the basic rule that if a woman is successful, she’s the exception that proves the rule. If a woman fails, well, it’s because they’re all just failures. Although I am passionate in my belief that Shakespeare is the most contemporary dramatist in the world, if we look at those dramatists who are writing now, they still find women basically boring. In new plays, new drama, new whatever whatever, the central dramatic engine is always, always a man it seems to me.
BOGAEV: Exactly. And you’ve experienced whole decades of gender stereotyping in the theater.
JACKSON: Absolutely. Absolutely
BOGAEV: I read that right before you went into politics, a journalist asked you, why are you giving all this up? You said, “Well, there’s no continuum for actresses.” There’s no sense of actually seeing if you can really do it when you reach the higher altitudes of theater, in the way that there is for men. And you specifically said that critics would never accept a woman playing Lear. I’m sure—I don’t mean to throw your words back at you.
JACKSON: It’s okay.
BOGAEV: But here we are 27 years later. Can you talk about what has changed, either in the theater world or in the world over those 27 years, that you are in this position?
JACKSON: Well, I didn’t know that they’re necessary linked in that way. I mean, the reason this all came about in truth, is that great friend of mine, a brilliant Spanish actress, Nuria Espert.
BOGAEV: She played Lear in Barcelona.
JACKSON: I went to see her. She was marvelous and it was a wonderful production. And she said to me, “Why don’t you do it?” And I said, to quote back to you, “They would never let me play Lear in England.”
BOGAEV: And this isn’t that long ago, or is it?
JACKSON: Two, three—well, I did it in England two years ago, didn’t I? So, it must have been—
BOGAEV: Just a few years.
JACKSON: —about three or four years before. Anyway, the Old Vic asked me to do something there. And after a lot of… not argy-bargy, it was all very friendly… Lear was put on the stage then, that’s how it came about.
BOGAEV: So, why did you think they still wouldn’t do it? London wouldn’t put on this…
JACKSON: Oh, because that had been my experience all my life, and in the sense, you look at the experience of actresses now and it has not dramatically changed. I mean, I was doing another interview and the interviewer said that women in, I think, 59, 60 range—we were talking about actresses, mostly actually in television and film—And she said, you know, they have what, the cosmetic surgery. And I said to her, “Where’s your evidence for that?” A) because there are no parts for women over 59 and 60. I mean, in my day…
BOGAEV: I know, what a waste!
JACKSON: In my day, I’ll go back now to films, because you know, you were finished when you were over 18. I mean, so, those kinds of shifts haven’t really produced the goods yet. I’m not saying that there aren’t. There are marvelous actresses who work in film and television. But the really interesting stuff tends still to be almost exclusively, the independent producers, you know?
BOGAEV: Well, we talked to Phyllida Lloyd, the director…
JACKSON: Well, there you go.
BOGAEV: …the original… the gender bending, who did the all-female Julius Caesar. And she talked about her initial motivation to do all-female Shakespeare back in 2012 and she said she read this report published in London saying that for every job that was going for a woman in the theater there were two jobs for men.
JACKSON: Of course.
BOGAEV: So the balance of employment was two-to-one.
JACKSON: It’s not just the issue of the number of potential jobs, it’s the quality of the jobs. As I say, we’re still not the driving engine in everything new.
BOGAEV: Well we haven’t talked… I’ve talked recently to a number of male actors your age, who have these… or younger, who have either played Lear or are itching to do it. Of course, it’s considered one of those two roles that an English-speaking actor has to do, or male actor, and the other being Hamlet.
JACKSON: Oh, well, yeah but then to the age scale, yeah.
BOGAEV: Exactly. It made me wonder, did you ever itch to do Hamlet?
JACKSON: No, I didn’t. I mean, I have friends, female friends who have done it. I was in Ophelia in a production with the RSC and got terrible, terrible notices. Until the Sunday Observer came out. And I think it was Penelope Gilliatt and the headline was, “Ophelia, prince of Denmark.” And I thought, “Oh I haven’t gone mad then. What I’m doing, I know I’m doing.”
BOGAEV: So, you think they were reacting your sense of agency in Ophelia? Because she’s so rarely played that way.
JACKSON: I think it was that I didn’t play her as a kind of woeful ingénue from word go.
BOGAEV: And victim.
BOGAEV: Well, let’s hone in on this specific production.
BOGAEV: With Sam Gold here on Broadway. And initially, you worked with Debra Warner.
JACKSON: That’s right.
BOGAEV: On the London production. And she had also directed Fiona Shaw as Richard II.
BOGAEV: How has Sam Gold changed this production from London? I didn’t see it in London. I have my own ideas, but…
JACKSON: Oh, it’s completely different. Totally different, I mean…
BOGAEV: So, how did he put his mark on it?
JACKSON: … well, we played in a bare set in the Old Vic, apart from miles of black plastic when the storm scene and the hovel scenes came along.
BOGAEV: There’s something very different about this production. There are a number of actors with hearing and speech impairments.
BOGAEV: On stage. Reagan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall is a deaf man.
BOGAEV: Who is perpetually, you know, he’s interacting with other characters on stage and with his interpreter. The interpreter’s played by Deaf West director Michael Arden—
BOGAEV: —Who is a beautiful person to watch and listen to.
JACKSON: Oh, yeah, well, unfortunately, I never get to see any of it, you know.
BOGAEV: That’s right, you’re in the wings.
JACKSON: They say to me, “How’s your performance different,” they talk about me. And I say, “I don’t know. I haven’t seen either of them. How do I know if it’s different?” And I don’t get to see it.
BOGAEV: Yeah, Lear is off stage a lot actually. We talked to Derek Jacobi too.
JACKSON: Oh yes.
BOGAEV: And he pointed that out to me. He said, I don’t know why everyone talks about it being so exhausting. Is it… you feel that also?
JACKSON: Partly because, despite his saying… Lear saying that he’s 80—fourscore and upward—it’s not an old man’s part.
[CLIP: Glenda Jackson in King Lear]
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O, ho, ’tis foul!
JACKSON: This guy absolutely refuses to accept that he’s old. It’s one of those terrible revelations for him at the end of the play that he is old. And he acknowledges that he’s old. What I’m trying to say here is that the idea that this is a part essentially for someone who is old is not true. I mean, Shakespeare wrote this play for a guy who had a lot of energy and a lot of drive.
[CLIP: Glenda Jackson in King Lear]
Hide thy bloody hand,
Thou perjured, and thou simular of virtue
That art incestuous.
Close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents and cry
These dreadful messengers grace. I am a man
More sinned against than sinning.
BOGAEV: There’s so much this play can be about, as everyone has said. It encompasses everything.
JACKSON: Well, he is the most contemporary dramatist, isn’t he? I mean, think of the tropes that are in this play that are in our daily lives now. It’s just astonishing.
BOGAEV: One thing a lot of people do have trouble understanding is Lear’s madness. Many actors I’ve talked to talk about the question of Lear’s madness. I talked to Antony Sher on the podcast when his book The Year of the Mad King came out. He’s a researcher, so he said, he talked to neurologists and gerontologists. And he came up—or they gave him a theory that Lear is suffering from temporary madness due to illness brought on by exposure. Like, a pneumonia. That’s based in fact, that happens and this helped…
JACKSON: I don’t think he’s in the storm long enough to get pneumonia. I think there are… I mean, he speaks earlier in the play about his “rising heart.” So, obviously there’s something there. And of course, the emotional stress that he goes through. Which is, I don’t quite know how to describe it really. I mean, it’s… he says, “I’m as full of grief as age.” It’s not really grief in that sense, it’s a… for me, it’s almost stupefaction. That it’s almost unbelievable that they would do this to him. And that obviously reverberates physically as well as mentally.
[CLIP: Glenda Jackson in King Lear]
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend thee
From seasons such as this? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this.
JACKSON: And yes, I accept that it’s a temporary madness. The whole play covers only, I think, two-and-a-half weeks. I mean, you know, it’s not exactly a long piece of time in these people’s lives. But the changes are catastrophic. And yes, I can see it that way. It started out with some kind of physical weakness, which is not exclusively about age, which is exacerbated by the treatment that he perceives he’s received, based on fantasies that he’s lived with all his life.
BOGAEV: Sher also said that it’s the study of aging and of a man falling apart—
JACKSON: Oh, well, that’s very much, yes.
BOGAEV: —and that you actually feel the fragility your mortality playing it.
JACKSON: Do I? I’m never quite sure about that. But certainly, as I said to you earlier, the realization that as we do and as we are, in all western democracies, we’re experiencing this. We are facing the realities of living far beyond what has been the accepted rule for age. It works both ways. I mean, I’ve seen, you know, elderly women, who suddenly become extremely, “I’m in charge.” That kind of thing. And you see men, who are suddenly quite tearfully emotional, express emotions. Whereas, you know, a little earlier, that would have been absolutely out of their context.
What I’m trying to say here is that even though, in my view of him, no one has ever said “No” to him, he discovers their dishonesty for himself, when he’s “mad,” in quotation marks. But he only really knows what love is by having experienced it, when it’s much much too late. I mean, they’re both dead. And that’s you know, intriguing.
BOGAEV: Well, it’s interesting for a non-actor to think about the technique. For instance, at the end of the play, they’re those “Nevers.”
JACKSON: Mm, they’re the ones.
BOGAEV: Yes. And you do them beautifully.
JACKSON: Thank you.
BOGAEV: I just thought yours were so naturally expressive and varied and each carried a different emotional meaning.
JACKSON: Because, and I guess that’s what he’s suddenly, you know, just suddenly hits him. Even though there’s been this quite long scene. He’s berated the other guys for not mourning in the way that, if he was young, he would. And things like that. And it’s suddenly hits him. I think that must be what it’s like. I mean, the deaths that I’ve known in my life have been within my immediate family. You know, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and things. In every instance, it was because it was a combination of age and illness, probably. So, they were not shocks in that sense. But Cordelia’s death is a terrible shock to him and that realization, that you’re never going to see them again, happens to him instantly. But, you know, a lot’s gone before that. But it suddenly, I think, hits him. And you how you say that… I, well, with Antony, I struggle with that—Well, I don’t struggle. I try to get it right every night. But it’s really, really tough because it’s so true. So true.
BOGAEV: It seems that you travel a bit, in that line.
JACKSON: Oh, you do. Yeah, I mean, the…
BOGAEV: So, how do you work on it?
JACKSON: Well, you don’t. I mean, up to a point. I mean, there’s nowhere you’re going, that’s one good thing, except down. But it is that… how… I mean the idea of “Never.” I mean, never. I mean just put in the context of, you know, this little ball that we all live on, rolling in this endless infinite space where there is never an end. I mean, it’s just… can’t get my head round that one.
BOGAEV: I’m going to switch gears.
BOGAEV: And go way back.
BOGAEV: And go way back. You come up in a biography of Peter Brook.
JACKSON: Oh, right.
BOGAEV: You know, widely considered the most influential Shakespeare director.
JACKSON: The greatest.
BOGAEV: The greatest, yeah. And in the book, you talked about being one of the first twelve actors to take part in what was known as the Theater of Cruelty.
JACKSON: That’s right.
BOGAEV: Remind us, what was that, and where did the name come from?
JACKSON: Well, the Theater of Cruelty comes from the work of Antonin Artaud. Peter wanted to do a play and he felt that British theater, certainly English theater at that time, was too literary. Not literary. Too word-dependent. He wanted to be able to use the whole person, in a sense. And the whole of what is theater in a way that it wasn’t so compartmentalized as it was at that time. So the twelve of us, we started off in a variety of rehearsal rooms, and in a sense, created what because known as the Theater of Cruelty. We, like, kind of, slightly upmarket revue in a way.
BOGAEV: My question was, has anything resonated for you now decades later from that Theater of Cruelty education?
JACKSON: Oh, my God. Oh, my God, yes. Absolutely.
BOGAEV: And can you tell me what?
JACKSON: I mean, I had been very fortunate. I’d been employed… by no means permanently or even regularly. But the bulk of the work that one did in rep, repertory theater, which was where I was employed, were what had been the West End successes. Depending on the size and success of the rep, you might do a West End play that had been a big success a year before. If you were smaller, you might get one that had been a big success three years before. But in the main, they were all white, middle-class, middle-aged plays, with the odd character parts and things of that nature. Then, of course, John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger, and that whole theatrical era went and a new one came in.
But to work with Brook was just such a staggering experience. First of all, he expects you to be what you say you are. Therefore, you don’t go through that tedious process where, you know, the director thinks, “Oh, you’ve got to be cajoled.” Or, “You’re idiot children and you have to be…” do you know what I mean? Just so patronizing and horrible. Nothing like that with Peter. His favorite word was “No.” Still is. Another actor in the company with me at the time, Robert, said, “The marvelous thing about Peter is he stops you going down the wrong road.” And he does.
His other amazing, amazing thing is, he doesn’t know if there’s a production there. The whole of the rehearsal process… I mean, there’s a play he wants to do, there’s an idea that he wants to put something on the stage… you all, you all are expected to work as one. You know, the total has to be greater than the sum of the parts. You find it together, if it’s there to be found.
BOGAEV: Well, I love that you said you spent a lot of time sitting around in a circle on the floor beating out the stresses in the line of Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: Which doesn’t sound that unusual today. Was it unusual back in 1960?
JACKSON: I think, well, the beats in the bar for Shakespeare were not unusual in the 60s, but that approach to work most certainly was. I mean, there was a prevailing fashion, certainly among the older generation of actors, to treat acting as being the least important of things. Know what I mean? “Oh, is it really my cue? Because I’m reading this very interesting article in the Times. Okay, I’ll be on.” There was a game at the RSC, Stratford, when I was there: the game was, who could stay in the green room long enough and still make their cue on the stage? Hellooooo! Hello. What are we talking about here?
And it was just transformative. The areas of work that became so available, and—not “work,” that’s wrong—the… well, yes. If you think about the acting as being the work, which I am thinking of at the moment, you began to explore parts of the capacity, of more than just, you know, saying the words and not bumping into the furniture. That cohesion of being able to grow off each other—I’m making it sound like fungus—but I mean grow in the best sense of the word, was just great. Absolutely great.
BOGAEV: So meaningful. That leads me to something I wanted to ask you because we haven’t talked at all about: your time in politics. This being a Shakespeare podcast, we try to stick to the Shakespeare. But, it did make me curious whether… if spending 23 years in politics changed how you think about the relevance or the necessity of theater or art.
JACKSON: You know, the real relevance here, oddly enough—and it’s become more marked, because it’s one of the things, when times are hard and money’s short, gets slashed—is engaging children with art. If they have that—and I remember from my childhood and certainly from my son’s early years in school that that was a very present force. I mean, children were taken to see plays. They were taught music in school. All that kind of thing. Their other learnings improved because of that. Because now, we see where those kinds of things have been drastically reduced and in many instances taken away from state schools. There has been a deterioration. It is so important, so important. When you get a really good night in the theater, a group of strangers is sitting in the auditorium in the dark. Another group of strangers come on in the light. Then energy goes from the light to the dark and hopefully, that energy is increased and sent back to you from the dark. You can create a perfect circle. And that is an ideal for a perfect society, isn’t it? So, that’s my theory. One of my theories. One of my—not my theories—one of my beliefs as to the importance of theater.
BOGAEV: One more question about politics. Right now in the US, there is a group of women, progressive democrats. They’ve just come to work in the House of Representatives. To a large extent, they ran for office for the first time, and they’re coming in with a motivation, I imagine very similar to the one that you had under Margaret Thatcher. So, I’m wondering whether you have any advice.
JACKSON: One thing that I learned from my years of being a member of parliament, is that the shoe is not on your foot. The shoe is on the foot of your constituent. That for me, was a genuinely humbling and extraordinarily privileged position to be in. In my country, we hold what we call advice surgeries. A stranger could come in, didn’t know the person, they didn’t know me. Because the MP is the port of last resort, if your life is in some kind of difficulty. They would lay their lives out on the table in front of me. And I could get someone to speak to me over the telephone. I didn’t always get the results that we wanted, but without exception, the individual would say to me, “Thank you.” And that—no, even as I’m saying it to you now, you know, the hairs are going up on the back of my neck, ‘cause some of the stories I heard were terrible. All I would say to those bright young ladies: remember, however passionate, you have to convince other people. It’s not a didactic approach, I think, that works. It’s a) understanding. For some people it’s very, very difficult to equate what they’re hearing with their own experience. And you have to be aware of that.
BOGAEV: Well, I want you to have some energy for your performance tonight and I just want to thank you so much for this and for the performance.
BOGAEV: Oh, no. Thank you.
BOGAEV: I’ll always remember it.
JACKSON: Thank you.
Our podcast episode, “What Have You Performed?”, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer.
We had technical help from Robert Auld, Helena DeGroot, Deb Stathopulos, and Larry Josephson at The Radio Foundation studios in New York.
If you are a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on whatever platform you get the podcasts from. That’s a really important way to get out the word about the work we’re doing here, especially to people who don’t know about the podcast already.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. And, if you find yourself in Washington, DC, please come and visit us on Capitol Hill. Take in a performance in our Elizabethan Theatre and come face to face with a First Folio, the first printed edition of Shakespeare's plays. We hope to see you here.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.