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King Lear Is In The House — Let's Pahtay, People!

Bethan Cullinane as the fool in the Shakespeare's Globe production of "KIng Lear" at the Paramount Center. (Ellie Kurttz)
Bethan Cullinane as the fool in the Shakespeare's Globe production of "KIng Lear" at the Paramount Center. (Ellie Kurttz)
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If you saw “Hamlet” by Shakespeare’s Globe at ArtsEmerson two years ago, it won’t surprise you to hear that in “King Lear,” the acting is broad, the diction is superb, the entertainment values high, and the tragic grandeur of the story … pretty much missing.

This is the bare-bones, wood-framed, low-concept aesthetic that SG takes with them on the road, simulating what an Elizabethan troupe visiting the provinces might have felt like. It feels good, as far as feeling good can take you in a tragedy, which is halfway to paradise. Or the other place. Neither transcendence nor facing the abyss are part of this road trip.

Which isn’t to say that this is a bad production; quite the contrary. [It’s at the Paramount through Oct. 23). First of all, “Lear” is an enormously difficult play to stage. As great as it is on the page, something crucial always seems to be off in person. The Actors’ Shakespeare Project version with Alvin Epstein and Allyn Burrows (best Kent ever) probably came closest. Even with that one, much of the other acting was nondescript and I didn't feel particularly shaken or stirred. (TV and film are another matter;.I’m in the minority, but I loved the all-star production with Laurence Olivier, Diana Rigg and Leo McKern.)

SG at least does what it seemingly sets out to do in terms of making “Lear” entertaining and accessible. The ensemble is tight, led by a jaunty Joseph Marcell as Lear and a hilarious Daniel Pirrie as Edmund and Oswald. Oh, right, the eight actors except for Marcell double as other characters when not playing their main men and women.

Bethan Cullinane as Cordelia. (Ellie Kurttz)
Bethan Cullinane as Cordelia. (Ellie Kurttz)

The acting is enjoyably broad. Marcell is ready to turn the reins of the government over to others and party like it’s 1499. Goneril and Regan are unspeakably evil; Cordelia a veritable Joan of Arc. (Bethan Culliane has the most intriguing doubling as Cordelia and Lear’s Fool, though neither is particularly lively). Pirrie is a very naughty boy as Edmund, Gloucester’s “bastard” son, while Alex Mugnaioni as the good son, Edgar, makes Jim Parsons on “The Big Bang Theory” look like a macho man.

This creates certain problems. Maybe I was still reeling from the scabrous view of human nature from Mark Ravenhill’s “pool (no water)” at Oberon the previous night, but by the second act I got really sick of the goody-goodies’ self-righteousness and started rooting for Goneril, Regan and Edmund. (Well, if we’re going to have some fun we might as well have some fun.)

Joseph Marcell as Lear and John Stahl as Gloucester in "King Lear." (Ellie Kurttz)
Joseph Marcell as Lear and John Stahl as Gloucester in "King Lear." (Ellie Kurttz)

It’s not all fun and games in the second half, though. In fact, the problem with the production is that director Bill Buckhurst and the troupe go a little bland after intermission. There are nice moments — Marcell’s final moments with the blind Gloucester and (spoiler alert) dead Cordelia; the drumming face-off between Cordelia and Edmund.

But by and large, when the corpses (and rest of the cast) join in on a celebratory dance at the end, it seems more in keeping with the tone of the production than their delivery of Shakespeare’s poetic lamentations.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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