Glenda Jackson. Theater's new Lady Macbeth is fiery on stage and off

THE walls of the castle are cold gray stone. When Lady Macbeth appears, she looks like a flame shooting up from the stage: From the tip of her wildly curly red hair to the hem of her fiery orange medieval gown, she radiates heat and energy. The actress who turns up the heat on this new Broadway production of ``Macbeth'' is Glenda Jackson, who stars with Christopher Plummer in the Shakespearean tragedy about murder for the Scottish crown. It is a ``foul and fair'' day in Manhattan, a day of Macbethian gloom and rain, when Glenda Jackson walks in to talk about the secret of being Lady M:

``I've never been able to believe that Lady Macbeth was simply evil incarnate. I just don't think that's possible, and I think that makes them [the two Macbeths] inhuman. And the tragedy, of course, is that they're both human, and it is human beings who commit evil acts,'' the actress says.

A Tony nomination

Miss Jackson, nominated for a Tony for this role, believes Lady Macbeth is driven more by love for her husband than mad ambition. ``She is a woman, as is he a man, of major, major passions. She's absolutely, passionately committed to her husband. She thinks he would make the greatest king Scotland had ever seen. They are not decadent people. They don't want the crown simply because they've got everything and a new refrigerator won't fill the gap. I mean, they believe passionately that he would make a great, great king. And the road to hell is paved with good intentions.''

As Lady Macbeth, Jackson sweeps regally across the stage in jeweled medieval gowns by Patricia Zipprodt that run the red spectrum from blood orange to crimson. As Glenda Jackson, she pads into the hotel room in black ballet slippers, blue jeans, and a white Pop Art sweat shirt emblazoned with ``Toronto Young People's Theater,'' given her on tour. She is slender as a flute at 5 feet, 6 inches.

Jackson's offstage face is scrubbed and shiny looking, like a schoolgirl's. There is just a hint of blue shadow around the eyes she describes as ``mud colored,'' because they change from bluish green to hazel as the light varies. Her dark brown hair is cut in a short cap that fits under those bonfire wigs. You would recognize the face from earlier roles, as D.H. Lawrence's femme fatale, Gudrun, in ``Women in Love,'' or the tart charmer of ``A Touch of Class,'' the two performances that won her Oscars as best actress.

The face is familiar from recent films, too, like ``Hopscotch,'' in which she played spy Walter Matthau's Mozart-loving moll, and ``Turtle Diary,'' where she was Ben Kingsley's partner in a tortoise heist. But either the camera or the role presents an altered image in films like ``The Music Lovers'' (she played Tchaikovsky's wife) or the recent Public Broadcasting Service telecast of Eugene O'Neill's ``Strange Interlude.''

The real Glenda Jackson, who sits sipping tea in a suite at the Wyndham Hotel here, is a prettier woman than some of her roles suggest. But she dishes up her tea with a generous squirt of lemon, a flavor that also spices some of her conversation.

A play with three directors

This production of ``Macbeth'' has had three directors. The first, Ken Frankel, was replaced by Robin Phillips, former artistic director of the Stratford (Ontario) Festival, who accepted no playbill credit. He was ``a joy to work with,'' says Jackson, ``because Robin is absolutely soaked in Shakespeare.'' When he had to drop out because of previous commitments, Phillips was followed by actress-director Zoe Caldwell, who is credited in the program with ``additional direction.'' Jackson says candidly, ``For me, she doesn't work [as a director], and so it's very easy - I mean, you just don't listen. She has absolutely no sensitivity towards actors at all. But then I don't regard her as a director.''

This Lady Macbeth is no marshmallow offstage. Tony Walton's original set was struck midway through the production's six-city tour. It turns out that Lady J. had something to do with that. When the play started its tour in Hartford, Conn., she says she told the producers, ``If this set isn't changed, I leave. I would have gone, too,'' she says in a dangerously resolute voice. ``The [Walton] set demanded an operatic kind of performance, which, of course, is not what the play's about at all. This [Shakespeare] play is the shortest of them all, and it moves like a bullet. It's a very fast play, jammed with imagery. And you can't afford to ignore any of that imagery. So what you have to do is present a set which is sufficiently spare, sufficiently uncluttered, and sufficiently focused when the actors are on it that the audience's imagination is liberated, given the freedom to dress that set as they wish....'' She says she is pleased with Daphne Dare's new set, which fills that bill.

THE set was one of many problems that troubled this production, which, in addition to three directors and two sets, had five Macduffs. Jackson says, ``The dramas we had on the road ... upon occasions have been infinitely more dramatic and theatrical than what has happened upon the stage.''

She likes work with Plummer

There have been stories about a possible rivalry between the two stars, but Jackson dismisses them. Jackson's strong performance has generated so much press that Mr. Plummer told one interviewer, ``Remember, the play is called `Macbeth' - presumably instead of ``Mrs. Macbeth.'' Jackson says, ``I have never had any difficulties working with Christopher. And I sincerely hope he would say he's never had any difficulties working with me. Nobody needs to tell me the play is called `Macbeth.' She has eight scenes, that's all. And for me the magic is to be in the play at all.''

There may be only eight scenes for Jackson's brilliant and fierce Lady Macbeth, but they are some of the most famous scenes in the history of theater. Has she worked hard at making those crucial lines - the ``unsex me now'' speech, the sleep-walking scene - new to the audience?

``I'm really not concerned with making it new. That isn't a problem for me. Lady Macbeth doesn't know she's in a play.... And so I have to live in her world. I can't live in the audience's world. And the audience hopefully will be sucked into hers.''

Some members of the audience who are professional critics have been sucked into that world; some have not. The New York Times gave Jackson a mixed review in the role, the Daily News a more favorable one.

The woman who will be queen of Scotland till the end of May grew up in Holylake, England, where her father was a bricklayer and her mother a maid with four daughters to raise. Jackson says there was a touch of class bias in the theater when she started out. ``It was very much class-conscious England.... The English theater was still a totally middle-class occupation.'' She had dropped out of high school and gone to work in a chemist's shop (drugstore), but ``went into acting via boredom. A friend with an amateur dramatic company said, `Come, it's fun,' and I went.''

A Royal Academy scholarship

She won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts at 19 and graduated to find that ``commercial theater simply had no place for people like me. You were either blond and pretty and the ing'enue, or you were dark and strange and the young character woman. And I was neither. Then John Osborne wrote `Look Back in Anger,' and the whole of British theater changed, and suddenly whole areas of British life were put onto stages. What were known as the provinces suddenly had a place on the stages in London. Accents were allowed to be heard. It didn't have to be Oxbridge via Portland Place BBC sound. And so people like me were given an opportunity then.''

Enjoys making films

In addition to her formal training, Jackson had also spent much of her childhood at the movies, sopping up mostly Hollywood films. Her favorites were ``always films that starred people like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn, those women who were strong but always got their come-uppance in the end.''

Although she never dreamed at the Royal Academy or at movie matinees that she'd be a film actress, she likes working in the movies and finds film as exciting as theater. ``I love working for a film camera, because it is totally obsessed with what you're doing. You never ever have to work for its attention.'' As for TV, ``The one medium I really dislike intensely is television. The thing I loathe about television is that those cameras are just as happy photographing each other as they are looking at you. And there's absolutely no sense of anything in a television studio.... I hate working for it. It doesn't teach you anything.''

The Glenda Jackson who loves to learn has been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has sunk her teeth into many juicy roles, from Ophelia to Cleopatra to Charlotte Corday in Peter Brook's ``Marat/Sade.'' Her six-part reign as ``Elizabeth R'' in the PBS series won her an Emmy. In conversation, this actress who has played so many tempestuous women has a voice as cool and soft as English rain. But its throatiness turns to a lioness's growl when something provokes her.

Her contract calls for her to perform as Lady Macbeth until the end of May, but she says, ``There is the possibility of extending it,'' depending on the rehearsal date for her next commitment, to a theatrical season in England. The season starts with ``Mother Courage,'' then a new version of the Don Juan story, and then, perhaps, a musical. She's also looking forward to getting back to her 19-year-old son, Daniel, a student at Ormskirk College, a part of Lancaster University. Daniel, who wants to be a journalist, is her son by a long marriage to director Roy Hodges, which ended in divorce. In addition, Jackson is starring in two new films to be released shortly: ``Business as Usual,'' based on an actual incident where a woman took a stand on sexual harassment; and a Ken Russell version of Oscar Wilde's ``Salome.''

Least favorite part of evening

Meanwhile, she paces the stone floors of the castle every night and takes that final curtain call with a smile as wry as grapefruit. ``I hate taking curtain calls. I absolutely hate them.... I do not understand why we spend all that time trying to convince an audience that they're, in this case, in a Scottish castle, and then we come out and say, `Forget it, folks; it's only a play.''' She laughs. ``So it's not my favorite part of the evening by any means.''

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