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King Lear — Globe Theatre at The Annenberg Center

untitled (102)From its first syllable, the Globe Theatre production of “King Lear” impresses with its directness and animation.

Line readings are brisk and straightforward. Natural posture and expression reigns. Nothing is stylized. The actors inhabit their characters as if they living their scenes, and the result is a “Lear” of piercing clarity and unflagging vivacity.

The cast’s delivery is so conversational and so distinct, I heard nuances in Shakespeare’s language and gleaned plot details that were new to me, overlooked in spite of dozens of times seeing and reading “King Lear.”

This Globe production, directed by Bill Buckhurst, and appearing on tour at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center, is entertaining, enlightening, and enjoyable as raw, unadorned Shakespeare, immediate in its action and admirable in the depth it finds in simplicity. Buckhurst and his company provide a “Lear” so elemental in approach, Shakespeare’s play is excitingly accessible. You attend to every word every character speaks. Themes such as impaired sight, parental misjudgment, filial betrayal, and using candor at one’s peril come through with seemingly effortless ease. The Globe’s “Lear” is the perfect production for introducing young people to the glory and scope of Shakespeare. It is also a staging to persuade the benighted that think classics are for a scholarly, nerdy few. Its full-throttled mode of storytelling, attention to symbols and plot consistencies, and unstinting clarity endow Buckhurst’s work with energy that delights, diverts, and pleases. You never feel any drag or strain of time in the three hours the Globe’s “Lear” is on stage. Buckhurst’s approach compels your attention.

The many virtues of this production do come at a cost. The breezy animation and presentational directness often preclude intensity or the establishment of a highly charged dramatic atmosphere.

Buckhurst’s is not a “Lear” of wrenching emotion. The pity and terror inherent in Shakespeare’s tragedy are noted and understood, but they are not deeply felt. Your mind is engaged, but your heart rarely goes out to the characters as they live though their challenging travails. Buckhurst’s staging appeals on an intellectual, narrative level. It entertains and involves you, but it doesn’t move you.

This keeps the production from being total. An important level of density and texture are missing. You may be horrified when Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out, but neither the decline of Lear, realistic as it as Joseph Marcell plays it, nor the passing of Lear of Cordelia evoke tears or even a passionate response.

As tradeoffs go, I am happy to accept Buckhurst’s straightforward explicitness. I, and, I believe, the Annenberg audience in general, are willing to fill in the emotional deficiencies of Buckhurst’s production and appreciate the  conversational readings that hint at Shakespeare’s poetry without emphasizing it. The Globe production ultimately makes up in spirit  and earnestness what it lacks in heat. Sentiment and meaning come through if passion is absent.

The Globe’s physical setting for “King Lear” is so rudimentary as to be considered makeshift.

Because in the London, the troupe plays outdoors, Buckhurst keeps all of the house lights in the Zellerbach Theatre so lighting is precluded as an intensifying factor. Except for Joseph Marcell as Lear, all of the actors double, and even quadruple roles, so costumes remain basic, a frock over a sweater transforming someone from a messenger to a queen, a hat differentiating Daniel Perrie’s obsequious Oswald from his  treacherous Edmund. Jonathan Fenson’s set is a lean-to of rough-hewn boards with a red shower curtain employed when a divider is required. It is serviceable but not evocative or impressive. I did enjoy the table made from boards that is kicked on oblivion at the end of one temperamental scene.

The Globe ensemble’s acting was uniformly crisp, with Bethan Cullinane receiving special praise for giving the Fool’s verbal assaults and retorts a musical tone and for putting some emotional warmth in her readings as Cordelia.

Joseph Marcell is a human Lear. He is self-satisfied with his plan to pass the cares of governing England to his three daughters while never negotiating the terms he determines about the division of land of the provision of Lear and his retinue once he has transferred power.

Vanity and an expectation of immediate kowtowing to authority marks Marcell’s early performances. The mildness and pride he displays in conducting the abdication ceremony and conferring his lands show a man accustomed to his own way. So do the mercurial flashes of temper and litany of invective with which Lear attacks anyone he believes is trying to thwart or disappoint him. He barely reads through the obsequiousness of Regan od Gonreril, but he savagely quick and stubbornly vengeful when he disapproves of Cordelia’s answer to how dearly she regards him or Kent’s defense of Cordelia that includes the sincere and prescient advice to “See better, Lear.”

Marcell adroitly shows Lear’s displeasure when his daughters renege on the dictates he made clear when he gave them his kingdom. In Buckhurst’s production, Lear becomes immediately sympathetic. There doesn’t seem to be much justification for Goneril’s stance. The audience is not pulled in two directions, seeing the logic of both cases and wondering if a compromise can be struck. All must be on Lear’s side because his retainers, loud and raucous as 100 lusty men are expected to be, are not destructively riotous or any more noisy than a reasonable person might account for. Besides, Gwendolen Chatfield’s shrewish Goneril is bitter and resentful, rather than exasperated or disgusted about Lear’s presence and his troops. Her conspiracy with Oswald, a cornerstone of the play, is so blatantly instigating that you have to side with Lear against her.

Again, Marcell, though acting in a kind of shorthand, lets us see the complacency, disdain, and sudden temper of Lear. He shows camaraderie with the fellow with whom he returns from hunting, surprise and outrage at his treatment by Goneril, and the same blinding anger he displayed while disowning Cordelia and banishing Kent.

Marcell is almost winsomely humorous in the storm scene, in which Lear shows his first signs of clinical dementia or madness. His desire to commune with the character Edgar resorts to in disguise, Poor Tom o’Bedlam, is childlike and honest. He finds fellowship and philosophy in a man who has been driven to nothing.

As Lear’s dementia advances, Marcell becomes more touching, remaining consistent in a way with the character he establishes at the beginning, one who is sanguine and contented in command and repose but who can go to flights of reaction when spurred by something that displeases or even jostles his peace or authority.

“Peace” is not a telling trait of Marcell’s Lear when he is in the most extreme state of discomfort or agitation. Marcell is not the lion I’ve seen other Lears  become, but you can read his thoughts and his inability to think clearly, in his actions.

Lear’s reunion scene with Cordelia is one of the more moving in Buchhurst’s production. It is one time when emotion seems to flow rampantly. Both Marcell and Cullinane radiate the quiet joy of contentment at being together.  You can see the love of the self-destructive father restored towards his wronged daughter, and the equal love even misinterpretation, mistreatment, and rude dismissal could not eradicate from Cordelia’s heart.

Marcell’s ability to play the many sides of Lear is admirable. It aids the enjoyment and clarity of Buckhurst’s staging, giving the production a strong foundation and a Lear who lets you see a vulnerable man behind the dominating behavior of king and the miserable plight of a homeless beggar.

John Stahl is a more robust and plain-spoken Gloucester than usual. He matches Bill Nash’s Kent for his efficient and almost brusque way of getting to the heart of matters and taking care to attend to them in the most sensible way.

Stahl gives Gloucester a younger cast than Shakespeare does. This is a man who is active in his statesmanship and commanding in his home and in the world in general. Stahl doesn’t show the breeding in Gloucester. He plays him as a country leader who must protect his fiefdom while considering what to do about a suspected plot against his person and about appeasing the new leaders in the realm, his superiors, Goneril and Regan and their husbands, the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany, the latter also played by Stahl.

Stahl shows you Gloucester’s  nobility in the scene in which he disobeys Cornwall’s strict orders and goes through the storm to offer succor and shelter to Lear. Stahl stays consistent by making his entreaties in a direct way and speaking, without showing, his dismay at seeing the state of the king. The only softening comes in the respect Stahl’s Gloucester shows for Lear as his sovereign and ally from happier days.

When Gloucester is blinded and dependent, you see the appreciative and truly noble side of his character.

Stahl is able Albany, but he makes his mark on the production primarily as Gloucester.

Alex Mugnaioni is tad confusing as Edgar. When we meet the character, he is barely able to mount steps and carries a stack of books he can’t control. He appears to be lost in his studies and effete, allowed by his father to be a scholar and therefore, not tutored in the martial arts or political intrigue in which Edmund excels.

Mugnaioni seems uncomfortable as Tom o’Bedlam, the disguise Edgar takes to preserve his freedom, in jeopardy from his father, Gloucester, who is under the Edmund-instigated impression Edgar want to kill and displace him. He plays at the posture and madness of the character. You don’t believe he is cold when Tom says he is, and Mugnaioni’s Edgar tends to retreat in the background of scenes in which his character is usually mutually engaged with Lear, the Fool, and Kent.

Then come scenes that surprise a bit because a different Edgar from the one Mugnaioni presented originally appears. He is suddenly competent in the throes of trouble in a way for which the bookish, clumsy, gullible Edgar never prepared us. He is ready, for instance, to take on Edmund in a duel in which Edmund is punished.

Where did this skill at fencing come from? It isn’t foreshadowed. You never get the impression Edgar was trained in swordsmanship, even if you know it’s part of young noble’s training in the time “King Lear” is set.

Mugnaioni’s most successful portrayal of Edgar emerges with the care he showed towards his father, and the nobility and wit with which he goes about his task.

Through his Edgar seems to be three different people in three different parts, Mugnaioni’s Cornwall is wonderful. He captures the smugness and snideness of the character, the easy way Cornwall slides into his position as a ruling consort with his wife, Regan, and the power with which he command fealty and exacts vengeance.

This is a brilliantly oily Cornwall who hides his perfidy behind seeming good manners and a courtly approach.

Gwendolen Chatfield is all pinched, stingy bile as Goneril. Chatfield plays Lear’s oldest as if she’s never had a happy day in her life and who thinks her father is a nuisance who is taking the single smart move of his reign by bestowing a portion of his lands on her.

Chatfield never allows Goneril one bit of lightness or joy, not even when she is fighting, with Regan as her rival, for the affections of Edmund, once he is made Earl of Gloucester and commander of his father’s holdings.

Shanaya Rafaat is more subtle, more studied Regan who will pretend to honey but who has the same disposition as Goneril and can be as venomous and vindictive.

Rafaat’s is a shrewd performance as she pretends to gentility or calmness. Even the way the actress says she seconds her sister’s sentiments regarding the love she has for a gift-bearing Lear, and then realizes she must heap more praise than Goneril did, is done slyly, making Regan an interesting character and one we see from the outset cannot be trusted.

Rafaat has a way of measuring her readings and phrasing her lines in three-word takes punctuated by the gesturing of one hand or the other in the direction of the speaker. This is quite telling. It indicates Regan is trying to convince when it is obvious she is lying or attempting diplomacy.

Bethan Cullinane is the most versatile of the Globe cast in both of her roles. Her Cordelia has a depth, a core of intensity Chatfield and Rafaat do not give Goneril or Regan. In a production that doesn’t invite emotion, Cullinane earns some with the bewildered look she effects while her sisters are speaking and the plain way she explains to Lear why she can be as effusive as her siblings, even though she is aware she feels so much more for her father than they do.

Cullinane is the most successful member of the Globe ensemble at putting some feeling and poetic context to her speeches. She is excellent in both the early part  of the play and the later scenes in which Cordelia is once more by Lear’s side.

As the Fool, Cullinane gives texture and expression to her character’s jests. She is astute in knowing how to taunt and in driving the Fool’s points home with humor.

Speaking in a high-pitched tone, Cullinane does need to think more about her projection when  not facing the audience. She was the only one in the troupe I could not always hear, and I noticed the problem occurs only when Cullinane is speaking to a character upstage.

Daniel Perrie is rightfully despicable as Oswald, Goneril’s worm of a servant who delights in taunting but doesn’t like it when he receives a taste of his own medicine.

Perrie is a fine Edmund, establishing his character’s duplicity right away and always presaging mischief when his Edmund on the stage. Bill Nash is an excellent Kent, bold, true, and honest as the character Shakespeare writes.

Bill Buckhurst skillfully plants Shakespeare’s songs, from “Lear” and other plays throughout his production. They leaven proceedings and comment astutely. Cullinane and Chatfield also have quite a way with step dancing. Chatfield and Rafaat often appear as musicians.

“King Lear” runs through Saturday, September 27 in the Zellerback Theatre of The Annenberg Center, 37th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes for the Globe Theatre production are 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets range from $65 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-898-3900 or by visiting www.annenbergcenter.org.

 

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