One might think that the stunning intimacy of Folger Theater would be too cozy for King Lear, but the space only serves to amplify the drama, humor, and overall human characteristics of a play about the conflict between people and the natural order. The Globe Theatre’s touring production, now playing at Folger through September 21, may have been intended for an outdoor performance (and is performed at Folger with house lights up) but more than adequately fills the space with sword fights, thunder, and music.
The addition of music was a welcome surprise, punctuating scene changes with haunting folk ballads, drums, flutes, and accordions performed by the cast themselves. The cast are not merely music makers, however, providing sound effects as well–including the jarring bang of thunder during Lear’s scenes in the wilderness. The immediacy of these noises in the closeness of the theater is quite powerful.
…it was a marvel to watch [Lear] performed by such a competent group of performers…
King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies, tells the story of Lear, King of Britain, and his three daughters, Cordelia (Bethan Cullinane), Regan (Shanaya Rafaat), and Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield), to whom is bequeathing his kingdom. He determines to divide Britain based on his daughters’ love for him, but when Cordelia refuses to mince words, he disinherits her and she, dowerless, marries the King of France and flees across the English Channel. He likewise banishes his trusted advisor, Kent (Bill Nash), for objecting to the treatment of Cordelia. Meanwhile, Edmund (Daniel Pirrie), illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester (John Stahl), plots against his legitimate brother Edgar (Alex Mugnaioni) and his father for control of the earldom and, perhaps, the kingdom. What results is a harsh lesson in the nature of trust, words, and familial love.
The director, Bill Buckhurst, chose to double-cast some roles, and it is a credit to the incredible diversity of the cast that this did not go awry–there is even a scene where Daniel Pirrie (King of France, Edmund, and Oswald) are forced to run back and forth across the stage, reciting the lines of both Edmund and Oswald, Goneril’s put-upon servant. The roles of Cordelia and the Fool are traditionally double-cast, and Bethan Cullinane is so distinct in both roles as to be almost unrecognizable between them. Her Cordelia is upright, impassioned, and pure, while the Fool stumbles about in too-large pants, making snide comments and pleasing the king with his vulgarity. Many of the abrupt character transitions are effected by a quick change of costume, the use of hats, and, in the case of Alex Mugnaioni’s Edgar, the removal of most of his clothes and the addition of quite a lot of mud. The only actor that does not perform some other role during the play is Lear himself.
Joseph Marcell, best known in America for his role on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and best known abroad for his long career in British theatre, goes all out for this production. The role of Lear requires full dedication and the complete assumption of the character, who goes through rage and heartbreak and madness, all in the space of a few hours on stage. Marcell’s performance is almost hypnotic in its hyperbole, but that is what the role requires–the total emotional and physical destruction of the character, through the failures of his own reason. Standing against this powerful force are the more subtle emotional tales of his daughters, who all come to ruin in distinct and very real ways. The abrupt cruelty of Regan as she pulls out Gloucester’s eyes is disturbing and startling to watch.
King Lear is a play that thrives on its ensemble, and it was a marvel to watch it performed by such a competent group of performers, each clearly invested and devoted to the production. While at points it can be emotionally draining (the conclusion has a rather high body count), the show manages to inject humor without disturbing its own emotional appeal.
Advisory: Play contains eye gouging and Shakespearean language. Not suitable for children.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with one intermission.
King Lear is playing at the Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St, SE, in Washington, DC., through September 21, 2014. More information can be found online.