Strong Performances Drive Emerson’s KING LEAR (4 Stars)

KING LEAR – Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Bill Buckhurst; Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole; Costume Design by Laura Rushton.  Presented by Shakespeare’s Globe at Emerson Paramount Theater Mainstage at 559 Washington Street, Boston through October 23.

Shakespeare’s “Globe” production of KING LEAR recreates another era with an Elizabethan booth-style stage.  The house lights stay up during the three-hours, as if at a minstrel show in the center of a field in the middle of the day.  A small wooden set meant to be lugged from town to town by wagon sits center stage.  The multi-talented players take musical interludes with Gaelic instruments and singing that add festiveness to the “wandering caravan show,” creating well-placed breaks in a lively, fast-moving, at times confusing, production which did not offer a plot summary in the program notes.  Still, the strong acting delivers an engaging and emotional drama about power, family, aging, and mental illness, achieving a truly tragic end.  

KING LEAR is about conflicts between fathers and their children and the cost of one’s (terrible) decisions.  Two elderly, single fathers who are used to wielding power display little insight into the true nature of their children.  The first father, a vain and manipulative King Lear (Joseph Marcell), has three daughters upon whom to bestow his inheritance.  Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield) and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat) pretend to love him and, upon his request for proof, profess their unwavering devotion.  The third daughter, Cordelia (Bethan Cullinane), who really does love him, refuses to indulge his arrogant whim, and says she loves him no more or less than any daughter should.  He banishes her, as well as his best advisor, Kent (Bill Nash), who stands up for her.  She is rescued by the visiting King of France (Daniel Pirrie) who offers to marry her. Lear’s plan to split his time between the homes of his two nasty daughters, along with his fool (Bethan Cullinane) and a full retinue of soldiers, goes awry.  Lear himself is banished from their households and locked “out of doors.’  Joseph Marcell (known for his role as Geoffrey in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) is outstanding as Lear, veering from kingly grandeur to rage and then madness, slowly, scene by scene, losing his mind – and bits of clothing, as a storm arrives, in more ways than one, and he, his fool, Kent, and a “naked beggar” end up in a hut together.

The other storyline involves a second father, the Earl of Gloucester ((John Stahl), who has two sons.  The younger son, clever, charming Edmund (Daniel Pirrie), is illegitimate and wants to get rid of his earnest brother, Edgar (Alex Mugnaioni) and father so that he can inherit Gloucester’s title and money.  He sets up Edgar, first to frame him for plotting Gloucester’s assassination and then as his own attempted murderer, causing Edgar to run off into the woods and pretend to be Poor Tom, a poor, almost naked madman.

A side story of love and jealousy ensues, contributing to the conflict that arises between the sisters.  Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Alex Mugnaioni), visit the Duke of Gloucester where Regan falls in love with Edmund. Goneril is also in love with Edmund, but she is married to the Duke of Albany (John Stahl).  Gwendolen Chatfield’s performance of Goneril/Curan is crisp and passionate.  Meanwhile, from France, Cordelia is returning with an army to restore her father’s place and welfare.  

To a novice KING LEAR viewer, it may take several scenes to realize that the actors in the opening scene are actually playing entirely different characters in later scenes, not just folks in disguise.  Keeping track of one set of actors/characters would have been fine, but it got quite confusing as the second storyline unfolded.  Only three actors played their same role the entire evening (Lear, Regan, Kent).  The other five actors played a total of thirteen roles, three playing three characters!  While some of Shakespeare’s plays do involve people dressing up as an alter ego (and this show does this as well), KING LEAR traditionally has separate actors for its many characters. By changing their clothing, accents, cadence, and stride upon entering and exiting, each actor became someone new, displaying tremendous dexterity and skill.  However, it was still challenging to keep up with who was whom in this production.

The innovative production even pokes fun at itself during one scene as Edmund and Oswald, both played by Daniel Pirrie, face off against each other with Pirrie running from one side of the stage to the other and doffing a hat to indicate change of character – then smiling at the audience and giving up the charade.  It’s a light moment in a soon-to-be blood bath of sword fighting (choreographed by Kevin McCurdy), poisoning, suicide, and gauging out of eyeballs.  Edgar and Albany are the last people alive to rule Britain.  The two men, Lear and Gloucester, who were masters of their worlds, have been utterly diminished and destroyed, now helpless and full of regrets. But in their decline, they have learned something of love and humanity.

While the acting is on pointe, the multiple characters are confusing to follow. If you are unfamiliar with Lear, or read it long ago, it might be wise to review the plot and characters beforehand. For those who are familiar with the play and the characters, this is a fabulous production that gives you the feel of a minstrel show, the true experience of making art out of next to nothing.  Sit back enjoy the mayhem and mass murder of madness and misunderstanding. For more info, go to: