Joseph Marcell has a beautiful voice. It’s the kind of elegant, English drawl that would make even the nutrition label on a box of bran cereal sound like poetry. It’s also a voice you’re probably familiar with if you, like myself, watched countless hours of television in the ’90s. For six years, the St. Lucian-born Marcell played the sharp-witted butler Geoffrey on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. There, he was the caustic and clever counterpart to Will Smith’s “Master William.” Every time he spoke, there was almost guaranteed laughter from the audience. But in his latest role, Marcell isn’t playing for punchlines.
Since September, he’s been touring the United States as one of Shakespeare’s most tragic figures—the tempestuous King Lear. For many, this is the role of a lifetime. Over the years, the mad king has been played by such legends as Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen. However, for Marcell, a classically trained actor and member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the role was not an immediate “yes” when offered.
“I wondered if I should do it,” he told New Times. “And then of course everybody convinced me I was of the right age to approach it. The most important question was not if I do it or not. It was, ‘Do I have the experience to tackle that mountain?’”
- PHOTO BY ELLIE KURTTZ
- HEAVY LIES THE CROWN : Joseph Marcell stars as Shakespeare’s troubled king, who plummets into madness after the emotional rejection of his youngest daughter.
Mountain indeed. King Lear is a mighty torrent of emotional and political chaos. It begins with the titular ruler, who has decided to end his reign and divide the kingdom among his three daughters. In exchange for the greatest share, he challenges each daughter to profess their love for him. His two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, flatter their father with mushy praise. And then, when the spotlight turns to his youngest, Cordelia, all she can muster is a flat “Nothing, my lord.”
Big mistake, sister. Lear immediately lashes out, banishing his right-hand man, the Earl of Kent, disowning Cordelia, and imposing himself and a posse of 100 knights on Goneril and Regan. Thus begins a nearly two hour descent into the utter unraveling of two families, an entire kingdom, and one man’s mind. By the time—spoiler alert—Lear perishes in the final act, nine have died. No wonder King Lear is often considered one of Shakespeare’s bleakest. But it’s also one of Shakespeare’s most potent and complex works as well.
This touring production comes to us via The Globe Theatre in London—an organization dedicated to accurate, enthralling, and original stagings of Shakespeare’s works. For this King Lear, director Bill Buckhurst has amplified the chaos and complexity of the source material by having a cast of only eight actors play more than 20 roles. Amid a minimalist set of only some canvas and a frame, it’s a dressed-down affair, but a demanding one, for both audience and performers.
“The rehearsal process was exhausting,” Marcell said. “Everything you see on stage is freshly prepared. Music is made by actors, sound effects are made by the actors. We try to illuminate the text with the way it is spoken. There’s a certain precision about delivery and construction of the verse. ... It’s a lot of breath, a lot of strength of the diaphragm.”
This is one of the challenges that any Shakespeare staging must overcome—accessibility. King Lear is easily one of the Bard’s more trying works, in terms of its near-overwhelming anguish and its dynamic thematic content. It is nominally a story about two families, but it is really a story about madness, and the language reflects that.
Typically, the Globe presents its productions in their original, Elizabethan pronunciation (termed “OP”). Marcell maintains this performance will adhere to those standards.
“We continue to do OP as much as possible,” he said. “We can’t be too esoteric about it. Our audiences are not exactly OK with it. We try to keep it accessible. Some words are difficult, like comfortable is ‘comfort able.’ We try to keep the words that we speak within the meter. … We’re constantly rehearsing, making things finer, jettisoning fine ideas, and keeping within the fine rails we’ve been set. The thing is kept fresh. We’ve not got bored yet.”
Neither have audiences. King Lear remains popular with spectators and actors alike for its visceral conveyance of anger, disorder, and base desire. Like Shakespeare’s other best tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, it wrestles with the full spectrum of human emotion—from the light and comic to the dark and dreadful.
“I suppose the characters express what we wish to say ourselves,” Marcell observed. “That, in many cases, the characters respond the only way they can respond. Everything gets to the point. When Lear says, ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning,’ I think our audiences understand that is the only thing he can say at that time. Shakespeare had a facility for finding the right words at the right moment. After 400 years, that has endured.”
Jessica Peña has never sinned. She’s totally infallible. Bow down to her every whim at firstname.lastname@example.org.