Bethan Cullinane (Fool) and Joseph Marcell (Lear) in King Lear, Shakespeare's Globe
The success or failure of Lear depends ultimately on the actor in the title role. In this production it was Joseph Marcell, who has a history with the role, having been the first black Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Marcell had the pompous and infantile qualities of the character -- a powerful tyrant who often acts like a spoiled child -- as well as his rages, but although he caught many nuances of the old king's failing mind, the final third of the play dragged. Part of that is Shakespeare's fault, but a more varied expression of Lear's grief could have helped. The tragedy of the play is undermined -- or lightened, according to your preferences -- in this production by some song and dance numbers. The gallows humor of these numbers, with Alex Silverman credited as composer and Georgina Lamb as choreographer, was mostly a nice touch, the only exception being the one that closed the performance, spoiling the catharsis of Lear's demise.
Peter Marks, A well-played, compact ‘King Lear’ at Folger Theatre (Washington Post, September 10)
---, Here a ‘Lear,’ There a ‘Lear’ (Washington Post, August 23)
Gary Tischler, Who is Lear? Next month at the Folger: Joseph Marcell (The Georgetowner, August 28)
The rest of the cast is fine but not quite at that level, with the exception of the noble Earl of Gloucester and Duke of Albany of John Stahl. Gwendolen Chatfield (Goneril) and Shanaya Rafaat (Regan) were venomous and spiteful, and Alex Mugnaioni was a little too spastic in expression as Edgar and the Duke of Cornwall, but the same tics suited his Mad Tom to a tee. Bill Nash was a rough-neck Earl of Kent, appropriately enough in the guise of the servant later, and Daniel Pirrie was an oily Edmund, although the scene in which he had to play both that role and Oswald simultaneously was not worth the laughs the actors played for, or the embarrassment. This was the low point of an otherwise charming production directed by Bill Buckhurst, set in a sort of rundown 20th century (designed by Jonathan Fensom). The staging went for laughs where it could, which is laudable to a degree in this often dreary play, but it is also important to give tragedy the room it deserves.
This production continues through September 21, at the Folger Shakespeare Theater.