King Lear with Glenda Jackson, Old Vic Theatre SE1

reviewed for The Wall Street Journal, 9 November 2016

In 1971, in a Chicago Tribune interview, Glenda Jackson summed up her career. In Ken Russell’s “The Music Lovers,” she had recently played Tchaikovsky’s hyper-sexed, institutionalized wife; her first hit on Broadway had been Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade,” set in a Napoleonic insane asylum. “Every time there’s a role for a nut case who takes her clothes off, they say ‘Call Glenda Jackson,’” she said.

Shortly afterward, Ms. Jackson won an Academy Award for “A Touch of Class” (her second, following her win for “Women in Love”) and an Emmy for her carefully researched and more substantially clothed role as Elizabeth I in “Elizabeth R.” In 1992, however, she entered British politics, as a Labour Member of Parliament. She briefly served as a junior minister in Tony Blair’s first government, then became one of his leftist critics on the Labour backbenches, but her recognition in Westminster never matched that of Hollywood. Now, at age 80, one year after retiring as an MP, Ms. Jackson has chosen to return to theater as the most famous lunatic déshabillé in the canon: Shakespeare’s King Lear. She is still magnificent.

Ms. Jackson does not fully disrobe in Deborah Warner’s new production at London’s Old Vic. That task is left to “Harry Potter” star Harry Melling as an affecting, long-damaged Edgar. Yet this “Lear” is, throughout, a dissection of the body and its weaknesses. Simon Manyonda’s bastard Edmund pulls down his boxers to moon the audience. Raving on the heath, Ms. Jackson fumes, majestic from the shoulders up, her richly timbred voice a last refuge of dignity (there is something of the world-weariness that marked her aged queen in “Elizabeth R”). Beneath her crumpled, oversized shirt, the audience sees wasted thighs, wizened ankles, twisted feet. A screen goddess has become birdlike, frail.

Ms. Jackson’s performance will be discussed for decades. But Ms. Warner’s production fails to match it with any revelations gained from casting Lear as a woman. Her “Lear” retains male terminology—thankfully—to avoid wreaking havoc with Shakespeare’s language. Ms. Jackson, androgynously dressed, could be playing either sex, though she gives a priapic flicker of a finger when declaring herself “every inch a king.”

Most of the time, this Lear has been degendered; we see a talented performer, unsexed by age, given access to a great role. But something has been lost. It is hard to feel much macho threat when this Lear treats his daughters’ homes as a place to entertain his rowdy soldiers—however high Ms. Warner stacks an onstage refrigerator with lager. Conversely, how much more powerful might have been Ms. Jackson’s curse on Goneril—“into her womb convey sterility!”—had it been explicitly uttered by one woman to another. Celia Imrie’s flat Goneril doesn’t help.

A taste for topical gimmickry has marked Ms. Warner’s career, so many expected this production to address more explicitly the fratricidal divisions unleashed by the recent referendum on European Union membership. “Lear” is, after all, a play about civil war in Ancient Britain. There are hints, when Rhys Ifans’s anarchic Fool dons a “creepy clown” mask to recite Merlin’s prophecy of English decline; Mr. Melling delivers Edgar’s revenge in the “V for Vendetta” mask worn by recent marchers on Parliament. Yet despite Ms. Warner’s dystopic set, designed with Jean Kalman, her production seems uncharacteristically restrained. Fortunately, Ms. Jackson shows no such inhibitions, especially when she holds the stage alone.