King Lear – Shakespeare’s Globe on US Tour, starring Joseph Marcell. A Triumph.

Reviewer: Steve Rowland / Shakespeare’s Globe touring company / Moore Theater / Seattle WA / November 26, 2014

 

/ This traveling production from Shakespeare’s Globe which stars veteran actor Joseph Marcell is an extraordinary telling of “The Tragedie of King Lear”. If it comes your way, see it.

Repeatedly, the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole, has shown how Shakespeare can honor the past and speak to the present. He did it with the historic Globe to Globe Festival in 2012, held at the Globe in London. He did it again with the astonishing Hamlet World Tour, taking place now until 2016. And he has been doing it quietly the past few years, picking up on the old tradition of English theater as traveling productions, with small casts and minimal sets. Theatrical barnstormers moving about in wagons and performing outside, in churches, or wherever they could.

The small, eight person, multi-tasking cast has, at its pulsing center, the soaring talent and expression of Marcell. It is an evening bearing witness to a true virtuoso: one who sings, barks, whispers, growls, harangues, pleads, banters, whimpers and cries. Marcell’s virtuosity is like that of a master saxophonist, a Dexter Gordon, a Coleman Hawkins, a Ben Webster (if you don’t know them, look them up) using all he knows, all he has learned in years of performance, to convey a huge range of emotions. Part of that challenge of playing Lear is that the aging king moves so quickly through phases of his irreparable downfall, and the actor must find the inner line to make each new stage believable in some real way. Marcell does.

Marcell is a film, television and stage actor, (known by some as the butler to teenage Will Smith in the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, a popular TV sitcom {1990-’96} with long experience as a Shakespearean, possesses the exemplary skills to pull off an integration of several styles of acting that are becoming ever important to the translation of the Shakespeare for contemporary audiences. These skills include the precise diction and articulation of each word, the thorough knowledge of the meaning of each line and alliteration in the text, the profound intimacy with the character’s inner soul, and the chops to let the text sing, flying from his mouth, his brain and his heart into the listener’s ears.

And yet, he is still a team player and the conceit of this tightly knit ensemble is their ability to work together, lean on each other, rely on each other, to tell the tale. So they all sing. They sing literally, because the production is infused with music, dance and song, in between scenes, spurred by the haunting golden voice of Gwendolen Chatfield (Goneril, Curan), but they sing because the rhythm of the production is itself musical, and the story flows with a beat and an energy not always achieved in productions of Lear, a play as tough and knotty as it is brilliant and moving.

“The Tragedy of King Lear” is one of the most often produced of Shakespeare plays, and the part of Lear is considered a kind of Holy Grail for actors middle aged and beyond. The role is broad and needs skills and the emotional strength of a man who has been around the block a few times. The story is complex and tricky. It is a story of decay and of loss, of a man, like many of Shakespeare’s men, spiraling downward, making mistakes, bumping into dark forces, trying to rebound, to claw his way back to the light, and ultimately meeting his end. And it is a story about power, betrayal, honor, and also like many of Shakespeare’s plays, of the dance between good and evil that is so often the stage for human drama. And it is a story about love, the lack of love, about honor, about the risks of being honest,.. and perhaps most simply, about fatherhood.

The story centers on two fathers, each of whom makes grave mistakes in assessing his own children. Lear, father of three daughters, misreads the directness of his favorite, Cordelia, takes her words as betrayal, and banishes her in Act 1, Scene I. And the Earl of Gloucester, father of two sons, is duped by one, his bastard son Edmund, into turning against the other, his favorite, Edgar, the honorable son. And then in yet another paternal line of the story, there is the steadfast Kent, who becomes something of a surrogate son to Lear. Kent stands up for Cordelia, speaking truth to the king, and so he is also banished.

As the play unfolds, Lear’s other daughters, Regan and Goneril, with the zealous support of their husbands, vie for power, Edmund plots, schemes, woos and betrays, Lear loses all, including his mind, Edgar loses all, Kent follows Lear in disguise, unwilling to let anger kill his love for Lear and his deep sense of duty to the king, Cordelia waits, and the mayhem of betrayal, mistrust, dishonor brew a storm that shakes their world to its core.

And there is a literal storm that shakes us too. In the calm of its aftermath, clarity comes into view, alas, a little too late for most of the characters.

The story is not an easy one to tell. Some productions focus on the power plays. Some on Lear’s growing sense of loss and insanity. Some focus on elaborate costumes and modern theatrical pyrotechnics to create the storm. And here, once again, the Globe’s plucky style shines, with its minimal sets and minimal casts, made even more minimal by the necessities of a touring production.

Honoring the style of the original presentation of the play at the first Globe Theater, an open-air theater illuminated by sunlight, there is only one lighting scheme – bright. And the house lights over the audience are dimmed still on, so that the actors can see the audience, just like The Globe. Those things are great, and bring insights to the play and a connection to the past. There is something powerful, at all Shakespeare plays, of experiencing the wash of words 400 years old, which have persisted through the centuries – we feel a connection to those who heard it first, and to those who listen, enrapt, at productions, large and small, popping up relentlessly all over the world.

The focus here is on the emotional thread, that connects the characters to each other – and when connections are broken, the fragility of life, that most great works of art question, bringing it to the fundamentals – facing the terrible storm, and Edgar’s naked defiance in the face of nature, Lear asks:

Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies.—Is man no more than this? (Act 3, Scene IV)

Marcell makes the words sing – delivering them with utmost control, lifted by his face, lifted by his entire body.   Marcell reminds one of a great saxophone player, with deft nuance of tone, intensity and a spirit of emotional improvisation. In an instant three words uttered from Marcell’s mouth send Edgar/Poor Tom flying across the stage – and the intensity is believable.

It is out on the heath, facing the enormity of nature, and their own diminished powers, that both Lear and Gloucester begin to come to grips with their folly and their mistakes in assessing the love of their children. Gloucester, now blinded, begins to see:

 

Thou say’st the king grows mad. I’ll tell thee, friend,

I am almost mad myself. I had a son,

Now outlawed from my blood. He sought my life,

But lately, very late. I loved him, friend—

No father his son dearer. Truth to tell thee,

The grief hath crazed my wits. What a night’s this!

Director Bill Buckhurst steers his interpretation to these important inward moments of reflection and remorse – and emphasize Shakespeare’s insights about life: that even a king is small compared to nature, that mere insects too have life, and that the distinction between madness and sanity is not always easy to make, when “Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile”. It is this quality in the writing, and in the Globe’s contemporary aesthetic, that Shakespeare speaks to the commonality of all people and that the common man is indeed as important as a king. And that, in the end, what we have is family.

Buckhurst pulls this out over and over, showing us caring and love at its most heroic, Kent, tortured and imprisoned in stocks, refusing to abandon his dedication to dear Lear, and Edgar, disguised as Tom, leads his blinded and miserable father away from a suicidal leap. Perhaps, Brockhurst and this Globe ensemble are suggesting to us, it is not so, that

“Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.”

We don’t know how much of Shakespeare’s own views, own experience with family are embedded in Lear. But his sense of family finally triumphing is clear. Even Lear’s son-in-law the Duke of Albany sees the horror brought on by Edmund and his own cheating and murderous Goneril. John Stahl is affecting as Albany who finally comes to his own senses and orders Edmund and Goneril arrested.

The cast is pulled along by Marcell to be their best. Bethan Culliname is wonderful as Cordelia, and remarkable as the king’s brilliant Fool. Daniel Pirrie is arresting as evil Edmund, and several other roles. Bill Nash as Kent brings depth and sincerity to the role. Somehow Alex Mugnaioni switches from Edgar to scheming Cornwall (husband of Regan) without missing a beat.

Under the leadership of Dominic Dromgoole, who is emerging as perhaps the most influential theater directors of our time, the Globe is developing a style of presentation, of recitation, of telling these 37 stories that is at once classic and modern. One that is both formal, but deeply affecting. The emphasis here is on the language but not the language for its mere beauty and virtuosity, both of which abound of course, but the language as the expressions of real people struggling to find their way, and to express both feelings and ideas. Imbued with intelligence, timing and intensity, we behold these eight traveling troubadours, breathing life, breathing song, into the near sacred text so we feel the plays, we feel the characters, and we feel each other’s kindnesses, cruelties and frailties. What an experience to share in a theater of 1500 people kept on seat’s edge before exploding into a cheering standing ovation.

Live theater lives.

 

King Lear

 

 

 

 

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