Irish actress Aisling O'Sullivan is making her Broadway debut in King Lear, facing off against Tony- and Oscar-winner Glenda Jackson's mad king, in what she considers Shakespeare's – and all literature's - greatest play

There weren't many professional actors knocking around Aisling O'Sullivan's part of rural County Kerry when she was growing up in the 1980s.

In fact, living miles outside of Tralee back then, the truth is there weren't any at all.

“It was like saying you wanted to be an astronaut or something, you know,” the 51-year-old actor, who is making her Broadway debut, tells the Irish Voice with a laugh.

“It just wasn't even a consideration. People were expecting you to study to be teachers or nurses or what have you. That was the route you were expected to go. So I just feel very privileged that this is where I am at the moment. I don't know. I don't understand this, to be honest, you're from Donegal, and now you're here, you must understand?”

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Aisling O'Sullivan in Druid Shakespeare

Aisling O'Sullivan in Druid Shakespeare

Was it like going into your backyard and building a rocket ship with wood and nails and flying it to the moon, I ask her?

“Yes! And then actually landing on the moon!” she says. She still can't quite believe, given her background about as far from the bright lights of Broadway as its possible to be, that this is where she is now.

O'Sullivan was last seen here in Druid Theatre Company's epic Shakespeare history cycle, where she played Henry V and Hal to acclaim at the Lincoln Center.

In fact, Garry Hynes, Druid's artistic director, has had a guiding hand in O’Sullivan’s career for several decades, signing her up to a year’s contract at the Abbey Theatre back in 1991 when the young Kerry woman was fresh out of the Gaiety School of Acting. 

What's unarguable is that this month O'Sullivan is electrifying as Lear's smooth-tongued but lethal daughter Regan, who finally shows her true colors when things look like they're finally going her way. Flattery gets her one-third of her father's kingdom early on and her stratagems look like they might deliver the rest.

But more than anything else King Lear is about the stark refusal to recognize what's in front of you, of course. When pride or ambition or anger get in the way you can literally lose sight of everything you love or believe in, with disastrous results for everyone and so it proves.

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Glenda Jackson and Cast of King Lear

Glenda Jackson and Cast of King Lear

The title role is played by the legendary double Oscar- and Tony-winner Glenda Jackson, who powers through each performance as though its opening night all over again. At 83, she has lost none of her onstage focus or power, delivering her lines with an Olympian ferocity.

But the play itself fairly thrums with an energy that's as fresh now as when the play was written 400 years ago. Onstage O'Sullivan has been allowed to speak in her own Irish accent, which roots her character in the real, giving an added authenticity to her anger when it finally erupts.

“I'm playing Regan and Elizabeth Marvel is playing Goneril and we are what the academic papers would describe as the villains of the piece. But each night as we perform the play and I've been listening to us, it becomes more and more clear to me that King Lear is about the destruction that's caused by a person in a position of power insisting on his way or the highway.”

Sound familiar? “Basically if these girls have been brought up in an environment where they have been allowed to see themselves and be themselves it might have been different. But yeah, it's just the most brilliant piece of work to be working on because it's constantly revealing another layer.”

For the audience, it feels so timely, since the play deals with overweening male pride and arrogance and the comeuppance that inevitably follows. Lear rules as if he will always; even after he gifts the country and his kingly power to his heirs, who waste no time writing him out of the picture.

Onstage we see image after image of crisis and collapse, and there is at all times the sense of people not listening to each other, or talking over one another, or acting at cross purposes. And there's Glenda Jackson the middle of it all too, let's not forget, an absolute dynamo.

“She's phenomenal, yeah. It is a masterpiece of a play and it speaks to our times the same way it has spoken to every other because it is such a masterpiece. It is in my opinion, the best play we have on the planet and it reminds us there really is nothing new under the sun.”

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Jayne Houdyshell and Glenda Jackson in King Lear

Jayne Houdyshell and Glenda Jackson in King Lear

O'Sullivan feels very strongly that Shakespeare is giving us enduring warnings all the way through. “It's a very prescient play, its message is to see better. I guess the players are trying to say if you can't see what's truthful and what the truth is, then it's going to bring destruction and militarism and the end of everything.”

The family is destroyed in the first act, after all, when Lear puts his three daughters to a test and we quickly discover he can't tell truth from fiction.

“I have the privilege of listening to Glenda every single night, you know, watching her eight times a week and she's a phenomenal brain and a generous, generous woman. She's 83. She gives it socks every single night, she never pulled back. You know, there are, there are days when she's taking the bow and she's staggering. So she's an incredible role model and I just feel privileged that this is the person I get to share a Broadway stage with and learn from. And listen, she has Irish DNA. I think it's her grandmother or her great grandmother. And she was very proud of this.”

Irish women artists are clearly having a moment in writing, acting, and politics. Does O'Sullivan agree?

“I am saddened stuff is happening only now. The more it happens the more you realize how many female artists have not been celebrated and encouraged and those are voices we might have missed. Of course, as you know, we're 50% of the population. I'm just thrilled to be living in this era, but there is still a very long way to go.”

Russell Harvard & Aisling O'Sullivan in King LearBrigitte Lacombe