The former MP is set to play King Lear in New York – her second take on the role. She talks acting, ambition, and her admiration for the woman ‘slogging away’ at Brexit
Glenda Jackson, 82, enters the hotel bar in an ankle-length puffer coat and woolly hat that, in spite of her extravagant and long-held scorn for vanity, she complains makes her look as if she doesn’t have hair. She is in New York for a Broadway run of King Lear, a fresh take on the title role she played in London three years ago, although she has long since forgotten the lines. “No,” she says, poetry isn’t easier to memorise than prose. “No,” memorising doesn’t become harder the less you do it, and “No!” – preposterous suggestion – one doesn’t get used to the adrenaline of appearing on stage. “You never become accustomed to it!” says Jackson, blinking vigorously before laughing with gusto. “We’re all sadomasochists, let’s face it. We all enter into this horrific, undiscovered space.”
The effect of all this, it should be said, is neither grand nor “scary” – as Jackson, or any woman expressing herself in terms stronger than mild disdain, is wont to be described – but impish, with a light touch of hooliganism. One gets the feeling Jackson never agrees with the premise of a question as a matter of principle. For years, people have been trying to describe her peculiar force with reference to her peculiar beauty, likening her face to, among other things, “a Francis Bacon portrait of itself” (the LA Times), “a wonderful map” (Jane Birkin) and, in a line from a Time magazine profile of the 1970s, “a fire whose shadows torture the walls even as one is warmed by it”, which is to say she is difficult to fit into pre-existing categories. Something about her – her severity, her glaring resistance to anti-ageing protocols, above all, her decision to quit acting to sit in parliament for 23 years – continues to be bafflingly avant garde.