The former Labour MP Chris Mullin has published an autobiography called Hinterland. Its title comes from the argument, regularly made, that politicians ought to have a background beyond politics, to broaden their view of life. I don’t think it can be proven that having a rich back story inevitably makes you better at politics, nor can you say that having devoted yourself solely to politics must make you a bad politician, but the belief exists (Mullin was an investigative journalist and an authority on Vietnam before he became an MP). To have value as a politician you ought to have lived elsewhere first.
An MP with a particularly rich hinterland was Glenda Jackson. She was of course a celebrated stage and film actress, winner of two Oscars and an Emmy, generally held to be one of the finest actors of her time. Then she gave it all up to be a dedicated, if not particularly notable Labour MP, first elected in 1992 and finally retiring from the Commons in 2015. Few can have moved from so public and exalted a life to the humdrum duty of an MP’s career. Were her acting life, and fame, useful preparation for being an MP? She saw parallels between the two, saying that each was “trying to define or put into place how human beings can create a society that works for everyone … The best dramatists are always asking, ‘Who are we? What are we?’ Now, aged 80, she has returned to her hinterland, appearing on stage at the Old Vic, playing King Lear, a role that seeks to find the heart of those questions ‘Who are we? What are we?’.
There’s a renowned 1980 short story by the Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar entitled ‘We Love Glenda So Much’. It’s about a group of film enthusiasts who become obsessed with an actress named Glenda Garson, who is clearly not too far away from the real-life Glenda. They so worship her performances that they become frustrated by the occasional imperfections in the fallible films that contain her. They take to re-editing the films, eliminating anything whose formal failings might detract from Glenda’s perfection. Then Glenda, who had retired, announces her return to the screen. This threatens the exalted idea of her that the group has created, and the story ends with the implication that only by eliminating Glenda will they ensure their idea of her perfection.
I was at the Old Vic the other night, and we the audience were there for the most part because we love Glenda so much. We like our Shakespeare too, and we were interested to see what the renowned director Deborah Warner would do with King Lear this time around, and how a female King Lear would work. But mostly we were rejoicing that after twenty-five years we could see her on a stage again – for many us, myself included, for the first time. We were not so obsessive that we wished for her demise for having failed to live up to our vision of her, but she was our reason and focus.
In watching Glenda we saw a succession of Glendas. There was in what we saw every Glenda we had ever seen before, each performance on screen or stage triggered in the memory by the actuality of her unique voice and movement. We saw Gudrun, Elizabeth, Hedda, Sarah, Stevie, Cleopatra. More than a lifetime of recollections, we saw Glenda the person who had to move about the stage, inhabiting a new character while telling us that what were seeing and hearing was her actual self. In the short story, Glenda’s fans admire equally her performances on stage and screen, but it is the film performances which they can edit into an idea of perfection. What the screen hides, the stage makes visible – the performer’s vulnerability. This was every Glenda we had ever seen, but also an eighty-year-old woman who had not acted on stage in twenty-five years, taking on one of Shakespeare’s most gruelling parts in a production nearly four hours long. She had to command the stage, terrify and then be terrified, rage against the elements, fill the auditorium with her voice. She achieved all this, in a remarkably physical performance. But we also saw her frailty, not least when she removed her trousers after the storm scene and went about with spindly legs. She did not have to carry Cordelia, because she (and he) could not have had the strength to do so (they were dragged in on a rug instead). She told us vividly of Lear’s decrepitude, especially effective when she was reduced to being pushed around in a wheelchair.
The production itself I thought was a muddle. It is set in a stark no-man’s land, without that sense of place which I think is essential to King Lear, since it begins with a map and the breaking up of land. None of the actors quite gelled alongside the others, as though each person were performing in their own private Lear, with jarring differences in tone, delivery and volume. It was star-studded, with Jane Horrocks and Celia Imrie as the ugly sisters (neither quite up to depicting evil), and Rhys Ifans as a bravura Fool, but the best performer by some distance was the less celebrated Karl Johnson touching the heart deeply as the hapless, blinded Gloucester. There was so much gimmickry – a naked Edgar, Edmund skipping and doing press-ups, Kent kissing Cordelia, France with an accent learned from Peter Sellers, Kent putting on a Middle Eastern accent as part of his disguise, Regan throwing one of Gloucester’s eyes into the audience. There was a splendid storm, with streaks of electronic rain over a black background, but so loud that Glenda could have been giving us the weather forecast for all that you could make out what was being said. The second half improved, of course. Lear’s and Gloucester’s scene touched on some greatness. And I rather liked seeing the Act/Scene numbers being projection above the action. It helped show how the time was passing.
We all cheered at the end of course, and stood up, because we love Glenda so much, but it’s a play that defeats most and certainly defeated the talents on call here. Glenda was very good, but not great. I never saw King Lear, only an idea of King Lear, raging on the heath but with no clear reason for that rage. I blame the production for that, however, not the performer.
In the end, what did I see? I saw Glenda Jackson in King Lear. Maybe that is all I saw because it was all that I came to see. Great actors bring their history with them, inevitably. They are the image of themselves. That image we have in our heads, nurturing all the while, enriched by the succession of performances, honing it all into that unique perfection of elements that defines the star performer. The more perfectly themselves that they become, the harder it must be to escape from themselves into that which the film or play calls on them to portray, because they must become what we see in them. Cortázar’s narrator maybe sums this up in the short story’s extraordinary final words:
We loved Glenda so much that we would offer her one last inviolable perfection. On the untouchable heights to which we had raised her in exaltation, we would save her from the fall, her faithful could go on adoring her without any decrease; one does not come down from a cross alive.