The Globe Theatre, launching its tour of America with a stint at the Folger, has created a King Lear for our times. I have seen noble Lears, pathological Lears, fragile Lears, arrogant Lears, and Lears who have combined all of these characteristics in one. But the Lear which Joseph Marcell and director Bill Buckhurst give us is a little king, who alternates between entitlement and rage, who radiates self-pity like a blast furnace radiates heat, and whose greatest talent and defining characteristic is manipulation.
Call him the Boomer Lear.
You probably know Lear’s story, but as the reviewer’s union requires that I give a few paragraphs of plot summary, here goes: Lear (Marcell) is about to abdicate the throne and divide England among his three daughters, but before he does he asks each of them how much they love and esteem him. Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield) and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat) limn him to the level of an archangel, but poor Cordelia (Bethan Cullinane) offers more stinting praise. Enraged, he condemns her to marry the King of France (Daniel Pirrie) and banishes her from the Kingdom, and when Lear’s loyal retainer Kent (Bill Nash) dares to defend her, Lear banishes him too.
Bad mistake. Lear’s plan is to wander the land with a retinue of a hundred Knights, visiting his daughters in turn. But Goneril takes half his knights and turns him out; Regan and her husband, the murderous Cornwall (Alex Mugnaioni), strip him of his retinue further. These Knights are not simply decorations or drinking companions; they are what Lear needs for protection, and when the daughters take them from him they are pronouncing a death sentence.
In the meantime, Lear’s good friend Gloucester (John Stahl) is suffering his own act of filial betrayal. His out-of-wedlock son Edmund (Pirrie) plots out a course designed to discredit his half-brother Edgar (Mugnaioni), and having done so, to overthrow his father. His plan succeeds, to disastrous effect: an enraged Cornwall blinds Gloucester. (“Let him smell his way to Dover,” Regan sneers.) He thereafter moves on to seducing Lear’s two traitorous daughters.
Lear is one of the greatest plays in the Canon, but it is a hard play, with some windy declaiming and obscure references. There is great wit to it, but it is of a subtle and biting kind, and unless it is produced with a durable intention to be accessible, the heart of the play will run away and hide. The production must catapult us into prehistoric Briton, seven centuries before Christ (Leir was one of the legendary Kings of England in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannaie, and his story was one of long standing). We must leave the shadow of the Capital and stand in the shadow of history.
Alas, that is not the Globe’s strategy. The actors come into the audience before the play and chit-chat with the patrons (for some reason, several of them gravitated to the gentleman in the seat in front of me, a fella by the name of Peter Marks). And here is Goneril – she who is sharper than the serpent’s tooth – playing the accordion! It is not Goneril, of course, but Chatfield. The problem is that I don’t want to see Chatfield; I don’t want to see actors; I want to see the play.
In this production we see actors – not all the time, but enough to ruin the fictive dream. Pirrie is a marvelous Edmund and even better as Oswald, Goneril’s dim manservant. But the scene in which he is Edmund and Oswald at the same time, jumping from one side of Goneril to the other and popping a silly hat on his head to be the servant is a sacrilege. Look at the clever actor, we say, instead of look at the great play, or, better, look at the mortal peril which awaits Lear and Gloucester.
There are only eight actors in this production, which means that several actors are double-, triple- and even quadruple-cast. Sometimes this works well, as when Cullinane, whose Cordelia has been banished to France, reappears as Lear’s Fool. Sometimes, notwithstanding the skill of the actors, this is not as effective. Pirrie, in addition to playing Edmund, Oswald, and the King of France takes on a brief cameo as a servant in Cornwall’s household. You might be forgiven for wondering what Oswald is doing with Regan. Stahl, in addition to taking on the massive role of Gloucester plays Albany, Goneril’s husband, and assumes a third role as a doctor late in the play. And so if in the climactic Dover scene you see Stahl first rolling around blindly on the ground, then leading troops and giving orders, and finally standing gravely in medical garb your first thought is “now what?”, I understand.
Closes September 21, 2014
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3 hours with 1 intermission
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So the production comes across to me as self-conscious and a little confusing, but also facile and knowing. These are wonderful actors, who speak the Shakespearean grammar as easily as you or I speak contemporary American, or, here in Washington, bureaucratese. Though the multiple casting creates problems it is mostly in the very small roles; give these actors a chance to establish a character, and they do so, and make that character absolutely separate from any other character they might play. Mugnaioni is spectacular at this: his Edgar and his Cornwall – two very important characters – are so different it is hard to believe that the same man is playing them.
But what distinguishes a Lear is the Lear, and Marcell’s Lear is one to whom, as another great playwright put it, attention must be paid. Lear’s great mistake, as his Fool constantly reminds him, is not his rejection of Cordelia but the fact that he put aside his kingship at all. He imagines that reverence and honor will follow him even after he gives title and power up, but he is in error. His retinue is taken away; he is turned away from his children’s door; he lives in the wilderness; he becomes mad; he becomes dependent; he dies. He rages, he fulminates, he whines, he simpers. When it appears that for a moment he is not the center of attention he clutches at his heart, as though he is about to die. If there is a Boomer contemplating retirement, Lear should give him pause. This King’s tools are the Boomer’s tools: entitlement, rage, and self-righteousness.
Let me propose, then, that this is not a play for Kings. (From the time of William the Conqueror until Edward VIII in 1936, no English King ever abdicated.) It is instead for ourselves, growing old.
King Lear by William Shakespeare . Directed by Bill Buckhurst . Featuring Gwendolen Chatfield, Bethan Cullinane, Joseph Marcel, Alex Mugnaioni, Bill Nash, Daniel Pirrie, Shanaya Rafaat and John Stahl. Choreography: Georgina Lamb . Fight director: Kevin McCurdy Set design: Jonathan Fensom . Produced by the Globe Theatre . Presented at Folger Theatre . Reviewing by Tim Treanor.
Tim Treanor . DCTheatreScene comes across to me as self-conscious and a little confusing, but also facile and knowing.
Gail Choochan . Fredericksburg Star Thoroughly engaging from start to finish,
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld You will never forget these performances.
Chris Klimek . City Paper it feels like we’ve all wrestled with an insoluble text and not been utterly worn down by it.
Peter Marks . Washington Post well played, compact.
Robert Michael Oliver . DCMetroTheaterArts This Lear triumphs …for the simplicity of its presentation brought forth in spitting-distance before our eyes and ears.
Morgan Halvorsen . MDTheatreGuide the show manages to inject humor without disturbing its own emotional appeal.