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Arts & Entertainment

Review: Joseph Marcell in a lucid 'King Lear' at the Broad Stage

Joseph Marcell as Lear.
Joseph Marcell as Lear.
Courtesy of The Broad Stage

Off-Ramp's Marc Haefele reviews Shakespeare's "King Lear," the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production, at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through Nov. 16.

The story is a cry out of the darkness of mankind’s deepest mythic past: an old man’s senile judgment and passionate rage destroy all those who love him, and even those who hate him. 

The old English chronicles date the tale of King Lear back to the times of Homer and Elijah. But, in Shakespeare rendering, it remains as modern as tomorrow.

The great critics call "Lear" Shakespeare’s greatest play. It’s certainly his most involving tragedy, dragging the spectator deeply into its emotional and physical horrors. But it is also spiced with little doses of wit and even fun right up to its immensely saddening conclusion.

The Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production of London’s “Lear” at Santa Monica’a Broad Stage somewhat overdoes the lighter end of things. Joseph Marcell in the title role works mostly in the upper register of his acting range, but then that is where the author places his character. His transition from patronizing indulgence to rage toward his faithful daughter Cordelia is massively unnerving, setting the pattern for his performance’s long descent into loss, utter deprivation and, finally, outright madness, followed by the parent and daughter reconciliation scene that is the mirrored reversal of his terrible rejection. Marcell’s is an intensely physical performance, very much in the spirit of the SGT’s entire production.

Bethane Culinane was a forthright Cordelia, strong enough to stand up to Marcell’s Lear. But unfortunately, in her doubled role as the Fool, her diction was at times not clear. Daniel Pirrie was a smug, hipsterly vile Edmund the Bastard. Bill Nash was eloquent and appropriately stolid as the faithful Kent, John Stahl was particularly affecting as  the blinded Gloucester, and Alex Mugnaioni, who played the opposing roles of Edgar and Cornwall, was suitably mercurial.  Gwendolen Chatfield and Shanaya Rafaat were more than adequately villainous as the evil sisters Goneril and Regan.

WATCH: Selections from the King Lear production

The SGT has for 17 years been the redheaded stepchild of English classic theater. Sited at a 1997 reproduction of Shakespeare’s original Globe near the  site of the original, which was demolished in the 1640s, it is partly due to its status as a tourist attraction that the SGT generally plays to full houses. But its reviews tend to be mixed.

SGT Manager Dominic Drumgoole is proud of his theater’s return to Shakespeare’s kind of space, with a large standing room area in front of the stage, where the expensive seats would be elsewhere. This arrangement was not emulated at the Broad, but the houselights were left on to imitate the daylight that lit  performances of the 16th century.

Other peculiarities of director Bill Buckhurst’s Lear production are of this century, however. Some of these worked involvement of the cast with the audience, for instance, and the versatile actors’ performances of all the music — and the slow deliberation with which the actors assume their roles at the onset.

Other novelties seemed way too novel, like the cast’s sudden impromptu Celtic stomp dances, particularly the one at the conclusion. Tragedies must end where they end, and are not improved by loud, cheery codas, any more than they were by the happy-ending rewrites that "Lear" itself sustained 300 years ago.

But the SGT production in Santa Monica remains essentially true to what William Hazlitt called "this tug of war of the elements of our being." It’s a lucid imaginative mounting of one of the greatest plays of all time — a play that remains, after more than four centuries, as terribly accessible as ever.