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'Lear' from the Globe

Bethan Cullinane (Fool) and Joseph Marcell (Lear) in King Lear, Shakespeare's Globe
Theaters appear to be in a King Lear phase, as Washington Post critic Peter Marks observed recently. Productions of Shakespeare's bleakest play abound, but it remains extremely difficult to pull off on the stage. A touring production of the play from Shakespeare's Globe in London is now playing at the Folger Shakespeare Theater, on the first of several stops in the United States throughout the fall, seen on Sunday evening. Although it did not succeed altogether, there is still much to recommend it.

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.

Other Articles:

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 greatest strength of the production comes in the double casting of Bethan Cullinane as both Cordelia, Lear's most devoted daughter, and the Fool. While she brought admirable dignity and sweetness to the former role, she excelled in the latter, a half-witted but straight-shooting Cockney-inflected goof, in a homely costume topped by a knit child's hat with what looked like dog ears. The doubling, which may have been a feature of the casting in Shakespeare's time, with both roles played by a boy, also heightened the poignancy of Lear's final speech where, as he cradles Cordelia's dead body, he says, "And my poor fool is hang'd!" While one normally would chalk this up to Lear's confusion or to a poetic metaphor, here the statement was literal.

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.

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