On Stage: Searching for Tragedy

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Globe’s ‘King Lear’ goes light on traditionally grim tale.

From left: John Stahl (Photo by Helena Miscioscia), Joseph Marcell (Photo by Ellie Kurttz), and Marcell and Bethan Cullinane (Photo by Ellie Kurttz) in Shakespeare Globe Theatre's 'King Lear' at Folger Theatre.

From left: John Stahl (Photo by Helena Miscioscia), Joseph Marcell (Photo by Ellie Kurttz), and Marcell and Bethan Cullinane (Photo by Ellie Kurttz) in Shakespeare Globe Theatre’s ‘King Lear’ at Folger Theatre.

“King Lear” is one of the grimmest and pathos-filled of Shakespeare’s tragedies, so much so that over the centuries a version of the play was produced with a happy ending because so many found the final minutes too hard to endure. The version of the Shakespeare’s Globe touring program, opening its United States’ debut at the Folger Theatre is a more traditional version of the foolish king sinking into madness, but it is done in a style that mutes the tragedy.

The story is familiar: King Lear, tiring of the burdens of power, has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. He decides to reward the richest of his lands in the order of the daughter who expresses the most love for him. It is of course an absurd idea and two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, are ambitious and effusive. Cordelia, his favorite, refuses to be drawn into the phony game, even though she sincerely loves her father.

Lear, in an irrational rage, disinherits her and banishes her from the kingdom. The Duke of Burgundy, who was interested in marrying her, decides her prospects aren’t what he expected so he spurns her. She is sent off to marry the King of France, which turns out to be a smart choice. It all falls apart quickly for the king, who had expected to live a comfortable retirement with the daughters who now rule his realm.

Lear is a role actors seek since it presents an opportunity to go increasingly mad on stage and effectively chew on the scenery. Joseph Marcell, who portrays Lear, can chew the scenery with the best of them. However, his madness is often a bit too shrill. He would be more effective and sympathetic if he was more in control, even though it is hard to sympathize with Lear’s arrogant stupidity.

The Globe Theatre production is staged in a well-lit space, emulating what an open-air theater was like in Shakespeare’s time. There is little more than a bare stage, with the characters costumed in an array of drab cloaks, a few swords and other minor devices.

Using half the normal cast, with actors in multiple roles is often confusing as you attempt to differentiate between the Duke of Burgundy, now the Duke of Cornwall, or then Edgar — all the same actor. All the back and forth with the actors going in and out of different characters was distracting and blunted the underlying pathos so important to the play. Although it is not unusual for Cordelia to also play the Fool, since neither character is ever on the stage at the same time, it is nonetheless disconcerting. Shakespeare usually requires some suspension of disbelief that is apparent with Cordelia (Bethan Cullinane) as the misunderstood and emotionally abused daughter who goes into exile only to return on stage costumed as the Fool. In that role, she is attired in pants and a cute child’s hat, the kind that might be worn in winter with absurd ears.

Near the end of the three-hour production one scene seriously mars the tragic violence with Daniel Pirrie, who performs Edmund and Oswald at the same time, darting from one side of the stage to the other. It evokes laughter that is probably designed for comic relief as everything falls apart. However, it dilutes the play’s emotional depth.

In the best Shakespearean tradition, there are bodies everywhere by the play’s end. Lear carries Cordelia’s lifeless body onto the stage, finally aware of what his arrogant stupidity has accomplished and falls dead of a broken heart. Show’s over. Lear and Cordelia rise from the dead and join the entire cast as they come forward to sing happily, sending the audience out into the night, supposedly in a happier mood.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.” It is true that King Lear is a difficult play to experience, but the message it conveys — no matter how grim — should not suffer from attempts to make it more palatable.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’s “King Lear” continues through Sept. 21, 2014 at Folger Shakespeare Library Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets $60-$85 and available 202-544-7077 and online here.

Related Articles