“A performance just ended. We just finished a matinee —in the sunshine.”
Joseph Marcell had stepped off the stage after playing what is certainly one of the most demanding roles in the Shakespearean canon. He wasn’t being treated to a little rest or to some down time. He was being rewarded for his efforts by having to do a conference call interview with theatre press from cities to which he will be bringing the production of King Lear in which he is playing the formidable title role.
It was 6 p.m. in Great Britain, only 1 p.m. in Washington, DC, and earlier in California, where the production by the London-based company Shakespeare’s Globe will travel after 18 performances here at Folger Theatre, September 5 through 21. The visit continues an on-going collaboration between the Globe and the Folger, which recently hosted a Globe tour of Hamlet. Marcell’s Lear has played not only throughout Britain, but in Europe and also in Asia.
Marcell, who was born in St. Lucia and trained in England, and whose off-stage accent bears traces of both places, used the Brit phrase “knackered” to describe his post-show condition and offered its definition as well: “That’s when they take the horses out to make glue out of them.” He added, “I’m really famished after the show. I don’t want to drink.” Despite being knackered (and presumably peckish as well), he graciously fielded questions about the performance, and the Globe, from around the globe.
I was first to ask a question. Having seen that Marcell had recently (2011) played the Earl of Kent in a different production of King Lear (at, coincidentally, the Old Globe, in San Diego, CA), I asked whether he knew at that time that he would be playing the title role in this production; if not, whether he nevertheless hoped and expected to one day play Lear; and how knowing the play from the perspective of having played Kent has or has not informed his current characterization.
“Having played Kent? Yes, it does…because I did listen to the play for a whole summer, in the beautiful weather of San Diego. Actors hope to play the big one, but I didn’t think necessarily that I would. I’ve seen wonderful actors play the part — John Wood, Ian McKellen, Robert Foxworth [who played the role in that production in San Diego] —but, in the end, having knowledge and information is not the same as doing it yourself. Always actors have a kind of arrogance: ‘I could have done it better.’ But when it’s your turn, it’s not as easy as that. Still, it wasn’t a new play to me, it was very useful to have played Kent. Kent is a wonderful character, who acts purely from love. Lear does as well, but it’s perhaps a misguided love.”
Shakespeare’s Globe in London is an outdoor theater (modeled on the original theater where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed) and many of the venues that this production will visit are also outdoors, so the next question involved the differences between doing the play inside and out.
“There is a world of difference. For one thing, [inside] you don’t have pigeons, helicopters, cars, pleasure boats hooting as they go by. But the most important thing is that, outside, when the audience is rained on, so are you. It’s a shared experience, almost a participatory thing. One of the beauties of this job is that every night is almost a first night. There are different venues. Every week, we adjust to a new location, to new audiences.”And, when outside, every performance has its own challenges: “It might rain. In Cambridge, during the scene on the Heath, when I say, ‘Blow, winds,’ there was thunder and lightening and rain and hailstones, and the audience shuffling with their umbrellas, and we were all, from the Stage Manager upwards, soaked —and yet they stayed through the whole 2 hours and 40 minutes of the play.” Explaining what held the audience, he said that on tour, “we don’t have gold and brocade and stuff, but we have Shakespeare.”
Marcell then noted that he played the Folger in 2006, when he was Jacques in As You Like It. (He has also played Arena Stage, in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, and Shakespeare Theatre Company, as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet.) So he knows the Folger space and is looking forward to the run. After all, he said, “when you are inside, you miss the outside. When you are outside, you miss the inside.”
Asked to describe his take on the character, Marcell said that he didn’t want to spoil “the magic before it’s seen, but I will try: My Lear is a warrior king. He’s not a senile, tired, old authoritarian. He’s not effete —he’s a hands-on, covered-in-blood, leading-the-soldiers-to-the-front king. But after 50 years of fighting and killing, he’s had enough, he’s done. He wants to go and have a good time. Some think of him as petulant. He does do one thing that many feel is unacceptable. But he cannot accept that he is old. Abdicating doesn’t mean doddering senselessness. My king gets angry when he’s called old. He does disintegrate in front of the audience. He will not accept not having his way, and his three girls dare to tell him that he won’t. It’s a play about miscommunication among the generations. Every day I discover something. I try to be more understanding with my own daughter.” (He told us that his daughter is now 26.)
Marcell next addressed the challenges of touring in a Shakespeare play and the way that is different from a limited run in a single venue. “Truly, our production has not been cut recklessly. The fat has been cut so the story comes right at you. One of the beautiful aspects of a tour is that there is no time to linger. The pace and dynamic need to go forward and be maintained until the end. This is not a production that you can sit and admire. You have to participate, to be a part of it. You are part of my kingdom, seeing the decisions I am making. And it becomes about the words, how special they are, and how we are claiming them as if for the first time. How we take obscure jokes that are 400 years old and make them ours. We don’t bring the play down to you, we rise up to it.”
This, Marcell told us, is not only the ethos of this particular production, but of the theatre, the Globe, as well. Learning from the press material that Marcell is not only an actor at the Globe, but is on its Board as well, led me to my second question, which was to ask him to talk about the importance to him of the Globe’s existence, its mission, and its accomplishments, and of his involvement with the organization beyond his acting. I had no idea, when I asked the question, that that involvement went back so many years.
“I have to start at the beginning. I was playing Othello for Nicholas Kent in 1984, and I was introduced to Sam Wanamaker. He asked me to join the Artistic Directorship of the Globe. I thought, ‘What could I do? I’m a jobbing actor.’ But I came to the meetings and realized that what he intended was an actor’s theatre, self-funding, purely about the integrity of the plays and of the words. It was one of the greatest honors of my life, really.”
The term “self-funding” apparently means that they don’t take, or need, government funding. (I’ll pause while all of the readers who bemoan the lack of state support for the arts in the United States as compared to Europe deal with the concept of a theater that chooses not to take available government funds.)
“As a non-white actor in Great Britain, to be asked to be a part of that…” Marcell said that institutions of “high culture” in the United Kingdom can be perceived as “elitist,” but the Globe isn’t. As an example of the inclusiveness and camaraderie found at the Globe, he described a sense of family and even mentioned that his daughter had worked on props. “It belongs to us. Anytime during the day, the place is buzzing.”
Marcell claims: “My contribution is miniscule.” He said that his part in this Artistic Directorship is to serve as a sounding board for policies. “God bless Sam,” he went on, again mentioning the man who had brought him to the Globe. “His legacy is beyond parallel, is extraordinary.”
Wanamaker, the force behind the effort to rebuild the Globe as a functioning theatre on (or near) the site of Shakespeare’s original Globe, was an American actor who moved to Europe after being blacklisted in the 1950s. There, he played Iago at Stratford, Marcell told us, and he also played Americans in movies that were filmed in Europe, such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. (He was also in a favorite film of mine, Michael Cacoyannis’ quirky black comedy The Day the Fish Came Out. In it, Wanamaker works for the CIA, searching the Greek Islands for a lost nuclear bomb. In order not to arouse suspicion, he and his team pose as a group of gay tourists. It was Candice Bergen’s first film and bombed, but I found it charming and eerie.)
Wanamaker’s daughter Zoe is an actress familiar to Harry Potter film fans and Poirot TV fans. She likely would have won a Tony for her Electra in 1999, had not Judi Dench done a Broadway play that same season. Sam Wanamaker died in 1993, before his “great obsession” (as The New York Times called it) was realized and Shakespeare’s Globe opened in 1997.
I asked Marcell if, had Wanamaker not been blacklisted and left the United States, whether we in this country would have ended up with a theatre as wonderful as the Globe. Marcell exhaled a very long, “Ahhhhhhhhhh”and then laughed. “I don’t know…I’m not a politician. But it can be out of tragedy that wonderful things happen. And sometimes a man is without honor in his own country. But what he has created has become the glue, the concrete bond between our two countries,” referring to the frequent U.S. tours that the Globe has undertaken.
Last season, The Globe sold out a big Broadway theatre with its rep of Twelfth Night and Richard III. Those lucky enough (like me) to have seen that sublime Twelfth Night will be familiar with the Globe’s devotion to “original practices” when performing Shakespeare. However, this King Lear tour, unlike the recent Broadway rep, doesn’t have men playing the women’s roles. But it does end with a dance and, like their Hamlet that came to the Folger recently, has a small (for Shakespeare) cast, in this case eight.
Marcell has had a long association (doing primarily contemporary work) at London’s Tricycle Theatre and has been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Readers with memories as long as mine — reaching back to the days when American network TV showed tapings of theatre productions —will remember seeing him as Eros in the RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra on ABC. It featured Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman in the title roles, and a young Patrick Stewart as a mesmerizing Enobarbus.)
September 5 – 21, 2014
201 East Capitol Street, SE
Tickets: $60 – $85
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Marcell will be familiar to broader audiences through his appearances on British TV in shows that have been broadcast over here, such as Rumpole of the Bailey, Doctor Who, and the soap EastEnders; and on the American sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. (He played Geoffrey, the British butler.) He brings his King Lear to town at a time, as Peter Marks pointed out in Sunday’s Washington Post, when the play has been seen frequently, with many high-profile actors playing the role this last season and even more over the last ten years. Marcell, in answer to a final question about the part, provided an interesting addition to “why Lear, why now?” ponderings.
“The baby-boomers have arrived at an age where this is the mountain that has to be climbed — not as a career crown, but as a prize [in itself]. In my humble opinion, I don’t think there can be a definitive performance. Different interpretations —that’s what makes it so wonderful. We don’t live for a definitive performance, we live to work toward a definitive performance, and I’ll continue until I am in my grave and am justifying my choices to Shakespeare himself. If an actor has the energy and the breath control to play Lear —why not? I played Othello when I was 44. I’d like to approach him again now that I’m in my old age. That will be the thing —the thing that keeps me young.”