Glenda Jackson on quitting Parliament, playing Lear and returning to Broadway

After winning two Oscars, she stopped acting for decades to fight Thatcherism. Now, at 81, she’s tackling an Edward Albee classic on Broadway. But, she insists: ‘I lead a very dull life’

Ben Brantley
Monday 26 February 2018 13:54
Glenda Jackson has returned to Broadway after three decades to star in Edward Albee's 'Three Tall Women'
Glenda Jackson has returned to Broadway after three decades to star in Edward Albee's 'Three Tall Women'

“No,” says Glenda Jackson, actor and former member of Parliament, her voice like a tolling bronze bell. “Oh no. No.”

When Jackson – who is returning to Broadway for the first time in three decades in a starry new production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women – says no, it often has a conclusive tone that shuts the door on a subject. Three nos suggests that the door has been triple-locked.

In this instance, the topic was pretty much guaranteed to elicit denial, diversion or evasion from Jackson, who spent 23 uninterrupted years away from the stage and screen while working in politics. That would be the embarrassing fact (or, as she would have it, nonexistence) of her celebrity.

We are at the cafe of the National Gallery, and I make the mistake of asserting that Jackson was one of the reigning movie goddesses of the early 1970s, given her status as a two-time Oscar winner for Best Actress and, more surprisingly, something of a box-office draw.

“No, oh no.”

I persist, foolishly. Hadn’t someone in those days described her as “the thinking man’s Brigitte Bardot”?

Jackson in the title role of ’King Lear’, with Rhys Ifans, at the Old Vic in 2016. It was her return to acting after a long spell in politics

She stares witheringly at the tablecloth. “Well,” she says evenly, “we’ll let that one lie where it is. Whoever came up with that was an idiot.”

Door slammed, subject closed. But it’s unlikely to remain so as she begins her run in Three Tall Women, the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama only now making its Broadway debut, at the Golden Theatre, with Laurie Metcalf (a current Oscar nominee) and Alison Pill her co-stars.

A month earlier, when the 81-year-old Jackson accepted the Evening Standard Award for King Lear at the Old Vic, the crowd roared its approval. This had been, after all, her first theatre performance after 23 years as a Labour MP (she stepped down at the 2015 election), and it had been nothing less than the title role of the most daunting play in the canon.

Jackson – with a helmet of cropped coppery hair, no visible makeup and a black and white dress from Marks & Spencer – roared right back at her audience. “Oh, c’mon,” she says, in the manner of a popular but stern school head on games day. “We don’t do standing ovations in England.”

For once, though, a standing ovation seemed warranted. Though Jackson holds a special place in the hearts of film and theatre cognoscenti, she hadn’t exercised her acting muscles – or even attended the theatre – during her years in Parliament. Yet critics had waxed ecstatic over her portrait of a despot suddenly betrayed by age – a man, as Jackson described him, to whom “no one had said ‘no’ in his entire life”.

“She appeared naked in a sense from her first entrance,” says Matthew Warchus, the Old Vic’s artistic director, who had facilitated Jackson’s return to her former profession. “We hadn’t seen her in so long, so it was an incredible thing to hear her voice again. That’s a neat trick, to make your first entrance after 20 years of silence.”

In person, Jackson is formidable but hardly as forbidding as her reputation would have it. She answers questions with a conscientious courtesy, only slightly underscored by impatience. Her face remains the face she was born with, scored with the lines you would expect a lifelong smoker to accumulate but untouched by the mask-like distortions of plastic surgery.

On the morning I meet her in London, she arrives at the cafe, straight from “bloody public transport,” in a sharp and purposeful blur, like a blade flung by a circus thrower seeking its target. She was again sans makeup and wearing drop pearl earrings (a gift from her son) and a wardrobe – red coat, black pants, buffalo check flannel shirt, running shoes – largely acquired from her trusty Marks & Spencer. (“A good thing about Marks & Spencer, they don’t hound you when you’re going round.”)

She was conscious of the time, since she was on “grandson patrol” that day and would be needing to pick up her son’s 11-year-old from school. At a certain point, she realises it might be a good idea if she had something to eat. We both order the soup, which comes with bread.

“How big is the bread?” she asks the server. “It’s half a loaf isn’t it? One of those should do. One to share. Save money and save food. Two-thirds of the world go to bed hungry every night, and we stuff ourselves.”

Jackson does not check her mobile phone. She doesn’t have one. “No, I have no piece of information technology equipment at all,” she says, and she is thankful to have no access to social media.

But as a star of decades’ standing, surely she must have to deal with certain incursions into her privacy. Does she read what is written about her?

“Well, no, because nobody writes about me,” she says. “There’s nothing to write about. I lead a very dull, ordinary life, which is the kind of life that I wish to lead.” As for what she does when she’s not working, “Well, you have to keep your place clean, you have to pay your bills, you have to do the shopping.”

Such comments seem a matter less of false modesty than of existential necessity, and jibe with her definition of herself: “I’m a pretty antisocial socialist.”

Glenda Jackson was born in 1936 in Cheshire, the daughter of working-class parents. (Her father was a bricklayer; her mother cleaned houses and worked in shops.) Being the oldest of four girls, she has said, instilled in her “an overdeveloped sense of responsibility”. She started appearing in amateur theatre productions in the area when she was working behind the counter in a Boots pharmacy.

“Someone said to me that you should do this professionally,” she says. “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.

Jackson won two Emmys for her lead role in the 1971 BBC series ‘Elizabeth R’

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, which was how she met Roy Hodges, a fellow actor and stage manager, to whom she was married from 1958 to 1976. (Their son, Dan, would grow up to become a political columnist; Jackson now lives in the basement flat of the house he shares with his wife and son.)

In 1963, she was invited to audition for a Royal Shakespeare Company season devoted to the Theatre of Cruelty. Helming the project was the already fabled Peter Brook. “Oh my God, it was an oasis in the desert,” she says of her experience with Brook, describing challenges that included morphing from Christine Keeler into Jackie Kennedy, while naked in a bathtub. “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.”

Brook cast her as one of the inmates in Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Her character, a narcoleptic who would suddenly erupt into violent life, had the role of Charlotte Corday in the play within the play.

Everyone I talked to who saw that performance remembered it as if it had just happened, especially the scene in which Corday whipped the bare back of De Sade (Patrick Magee) with her hair. The show became the succès d’estime and de scandale of the London season, and in 1965 moved from the West End to Broadway.

Not long after, the iconoclastic film director Ken Russell invited her to portray the conflicted, temperamental young artist Gudrun Brangwen in his film of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, in which she stared down and danced with a herd of highland cattle. And thus the singularly focused force that is Glenda Jackson on screen was set loose upon the world.

It is hard now to convey how startling – and how thrilling – Jackson’s ascension was to many of us who came of age in the 1970s. It was, in its way, as unexpected as that of Barbra Streisand. 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 Russell’s notorious fever dream of a biopic The Music Lovers. She radiated a power that seemed to level her leading men.

Hollywood acknowledged this arresting newcomer with two Oscars in four years, for Women in Love and the romantic comedy A Touch of Class, which established her as an artful wielder of one-liners who could glam up with the best of them. She did not show up to accept either and remains disdainful of all prizes. (Check out the YouTube video of her priceless Evening Standard Award acceptance speech, which concludes: “I’m left wondering what I did wrong, so thank you very much indeed.”)

She became a bankable star, who worked in both offbeat masterpieces (Sunday Bloody Sunday) and bloated costume duds (The Incredible Sarah, as Sarah Bernhardt). She appeared on stage, in London and New York in productions that included a Macbeth (1988), opposite Christopher Plummer, with which she made her last previous appearance on Broadway.

It was not a success. “There were great difficulties over the kind of production it was going to be,” Jackson remembers. “Very ruthless, Broadway. People do devour people. I think we had about three or four directors.”

Jackson perceived a different kind of ruthlessness at work in her native Britain, then under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. “What she’d done to my country, I didn’t believe it,” she says. Of Thatcher’s imfamous quote “there’s no such thing as a society”, she says: “I was so incensed by that, I walked into my closed French windows and almost broke my nose.”

She had been asked before if she’d be willing to stand for a Labour seat. “Suddenly, out of the blue, Hampstead and Highgate came up,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, go for it, just do it.’” When she won, she didn’t think twice about saying goodbye to acting. “There’s no way you could do both,” she says.

She held minor ministerial posts under Tony Blair, with whom she publicly broke over the war in Iraq. She made some memorable, resonant speeches – remember that voice – on the floor of Parliament, including a scathing counter-tribute to Margaret Thatcher after the former Prime Minister’s death in 2013.

Overtures about acting again had been made to her while she was still in Parliament, from, among others, Warchus and the Three Tall Women producer Scott Rudin (who as a theatre-crazy kid had seen her on Broadway in Marat/Sade and wanted her for the part Judi Dench played in the film Notes on a Scandal). But it was only after she stepped down from her Parliament seat in 2015 that acting once again seemed like a possibility.

Warchus recalls his first meeting with her about playing King Lear: “I met her at the stage door and she was smoking, and she seemed to be in some sort of irascible state.”

After they talked in his office, he took her onto to the Old Vic stage. “And I could see her sort of unfurl,’’ he says. “We stood there looking out, and her eyes became a bit watery and she was reminiscing about the different shows that she’d done. It may seem an obvious and sentimental thing to say, but it was a homecoming for her. I had seen the great rigorousness; then I also got to see the emotion.”

Jackson with then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a Labour Party meeting in Kilburn, north London, in 2010

When I repeat Warchus’s recollection of that “homecoming” moment to Jackson, she almost snorts. “Oh no,” she says. “No, no. Oh no. It was a theatre I worked in more than once. And they’d maintained it beautifully.”

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. (“I was taught to leave my ego outside the stage door,” she says to me several times.) In discussing Lear, she insists that the play is not only about its title monarch. “There’s not a bad part in it.”

The fact that she was a woman playing a man turns out to be a non-issue. “What interested me,” she says, “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.”

As for how she shapes her character, “it’s all in the text,” she says. She does little, if any, research on a part beyond reading the script again and again and again. When she showed up for the first day of rehearsals of Lear, she had already memorised her lines.

Appearing before a live audience again, she says she felt no more nervous than she had before any performance from decades earlier – which is to say, she was terrified. “You can go onto that stage every night, and it’s always the equivalent of going onto the topmost diving board, and you don’t know if there’s any water in the pool.

“Every time I say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ I think, ‘My God I don’t know how to do it. I can’t do it.’ We are sadomasochists as well as being brave, actors, and we torment ourselves.”

She is reluctant to talk much about her role as a tyrannical old woman, modelled on Albee’s mother, in Three Tall Women. (That drama initiated a fruitful late chapter in its creator’s career when it opened in New York in 1994.) She had worked with the playwright himself, on a 1989 production he directed of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Los Angeles, co-starring John Lithgow.

And how was that experience? “Awful. I mean we just didn’t get on. He was a terrible director. In the copy of the play that I’ve got, he’s put kind of directorial things inside; it’s very hard to ignore, but one tries.”

In the meantime, she was thinking with horror about packing for the trip to New York, a place she hadn’t visited in so long she couldn’t recall the last time she was there. “I hate travelling,” she says, sounding almost nervous, for once. “I hate luggage.”

The next time I saw Jackson was in a Broadway rehearsal room on West 42nd Street, where she was embodying the frail but fierce old woman identified simply as A in Albee’s script, under the soft-spoken direction of Joe Mantello. Her co-stars, Metcalf and Pill, were on hand as B and C, women of different generations tending to the demanding A in the play’s first scene.

It was kind of distressing to see Jackson looking and sounding so feeble, and a relief when she became her trenchant self again during breaks. She interrupted the proceedings to suggest that the tone of the scene should alter more palpably after A says something particularly arrogant to Pill’s character. (“I mean, it’s so rude, isn’t it? I don’t care how old you are. There’s no excuse for it.”) And then without a beat, she became Albee’s insufferably rude woman once again.

Pill says she had expected to be intimidated by Jackson, and she was right, though there’s “not an element of diva in the slightest”. The intimidation factor, she says, comes from her being “potentially the smartest person in the room”.

Later that day, in a lounge at the hotel where she is staying, Jackson’s voice was softer than during our first encounter, and she spoke more slowly. I had the impression of someone carefully husbanding her energy.

She is pleased, she says, to be working with other actresses, for a change. “It has been, really, everything one could hope for. Because, as I’ve said, 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.”

She says she still hadn’t entirely found her way into her role in Three Tall Women, and astutely elaborated on some questions of character she was trying to resolve. (Was C’s fear of theft motivated by experience or paranoia?)

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. Again, where are the contemporary playwrights?”

Warchus, however, says that, in watching her 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.’”

In her thirties, Jackson said she was looking forward to old age, because it “seems the only irresponsible time of your life”. When she decided she would not stand for Parliament again three years ago, she says she thought: “Oh, I’m going to be so irresponsible. There’ll be nothing to be responsible for.”

The reality was, perhaps inevitably, quite the opposite. “In truth, you are even more responsible,” she says, not sounding remotely regretful. “What gets you out of bed in the morning, if not you?”

For the moment, Jackson’s sense of responsibility is trained almost entirely on her current role. Her nights are spent with the script, she says, and it is all she has been reading.

And though she loves to walk in New York, she says she has been outside only rarely since she arrived, because it had been cold, which has forced her to cut down on smoking. (“I’m well below 10 a day. I don’t know how good or bad that is.”)

Does she find she is recognised on the streets? “No, I’m not recognised in London. What would people recognise?” Well, she is inimitably herself, I say.

Her response: “Oh no, come on, good God. No.”

Glenda Jackson stars in Edward Albee’s ‘Three Tall Women’ on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre, New York, from 27 February

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