Actress Glenda Jackson returns to Broadway after 30 years

Glenda Jackson will perform in a new production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.
Glenda Jackson will perform in a new production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON • "No," said Glenda Jackson, the great British actress and former member of Parliament.

"Oh no. No."

When Jackson, 81 - who is returning to Broadway for the first time in three decades, in a new production of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women slated to open tomorrow - says "no", it often has a conclusive tone that effectively shuts the door on a subject.

It was a January morning at the cafe of the National Gallery in London and the suggestion had been put to her that she was one of the movie goddesses of the early 1970s, given her status as a two-time Oscar winner for Best Actress.

"Well," she said evenly, "we'll let that one lie where it is. Whoever came up with that was an idiot."

Door slammed, subject closed. But it seemed unlikely to remain so once she arrived in the United States a week later to begin rehearsals for Three Tall Women, a 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning drama making its Broadway debut, with Alison Pill among her co-stars.

A month earlier, when Jackson accepted the Evening Standard Award for King Lear, the crowd roared its approval. This had been, after all, her first theatre gig after 23 years in Parliament for the Labour Party.

Critics had waxed ecstatic over her portraiture of a despot suddenly betrayed by age - a man, as Jackson described him, to whom "no one had said 'no' in his entire life".

Jackson, the daughter of working-class parents, started in amateur theatre productions when she was working behind the counter in a Boots pharmacy.

"Someone said to me that you should do this professionally," she recalled. "So I wrote to the only drama school I had ever heard of."

It was a big one, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She was accepted, with scholarships.

When she began to audition professionally, she was told she could expect only character parts. She found work, usually in supporting roles, in repertory companies.

In 1963, she was invited to audition for a Royal Shakespeare Company season devoted to the Theatre of Cruelty. "Oh my God, it was an oasis in the desert," she said. "Those kinds of requests had never been made, not of me. It was just calling on so many things that I hadn't realised were possible in acting."

Not long after, film director Ken Russell invited her to portray the conflicted, temperamental young artist Gudrun Brangwen in his film of D.H. Lawrence's Women In Love, in which she stared down and danced with a herd of cattle.

It is hard now to convey how startling - and how thrilling - Jackson's ascension was to many people who came of age in the 1970s.

For starters, she looked like no movie star who had come before, her face a collision of sharp angles that, on camera, read harshly and hypnotically beautiful.

Then, there was the uncompromising, defiant strength she exuded in every role, whether it was the Virgin Queen of Elizabeth R, a hugely popular BBC series (for which she won two Emmys), or the nymphomaniacal Nina, wife to Richard Chamberlain's Tchaikovsky in the biopic The Music Lovers (1971).

Hollywood acknowledged her ability with two Oscars in four years, for Women In Love (1969) and the romantic comedy A Touch Of Class (1973), which established her as an artful wielder of one-liners who could glam up with the best of them.

She had been asked before if she would be willing to stand for a Labour Party seat. And then, "suddenly out of the blue, Hampstead and Highgate came up. And I thought, 'Oh, go for it, just do it'."

When she won, she did not think twice about saying goodbye to acting. "There's no way you could do both," she said.

She held minor ministry posts under Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom she publicly broke over the war in Iraq.

But it was only after she stepped down from her Parliament seat in 2015 that acting once again seemed like a possibility.

As you might suspect, Jackson's approach to acting appears to be unclouded by mysticism or sentimentality. She sees performing as a collaborative effort, above all.

In discussing Lear, she kept insisting that the play is not only about its title monarch. The fact that she was a woman playing a man turned out to be a non-issue. "What interested me," she said, "was that as we age, those seemingly unbreakable barriers that define us, our gender, they begin to crack, to blur; they're not absolutes anymore".

In rehearsals in New York for Three Tall Women, Pill said she had expected to be intimidated by Jackson and she was right, although there's "not an element of diva in the slightest". The intimidation factor, Pill noted, came from Jackson being "potentially the smartest person in the room".

Later that day, in a lounge at the hotel where she is staying, Jackson said she was pleased to be working with actresses for a change.

"Most plays have only one decent woman's part in them, and if you've got it, there aren't any other actresses to work with."

And what about other roles to come, perhaps in film? "Oh, I think that's highly unlikely. I mean, I think parts for women of my years are well and truly finished."

And theatre? "That depends."

Matthew Warchus, the Old Vic's artistic director, said in watching Jackson performing Lear, "not for a second did you think that this is someone's swan song".

"It was the opposite. And she said to me, 'What's next, Matthew? Find me another play'."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2018, with the headline 'Actress Glenda Jackson returns to Broadway after 30 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe