Last Thursday, my wife Lisa and I hit the road to the University of California at Santa Barbara to catch the touring Shakespeare’s Globe production of King Lear, as its tour of the US is winding down. To call the production lean-and-mean would be insulting and would give the false impression that it seems to lack something.
This stripped-down production wants for very, VERY little.
Let me set the scene. A university lecture hall. On the stage, a small structure, an Elizabethan-style booth stage. No curtain. Props and Costuming easily visible resting on the set. With about 10 minutes to show time, the actors begin to mill about on stage, then into the crowd, chatting up the audience. I didn’t get a chance to talk to any, so I can’t say for certain, but I would guess they spoke as people, as actors, as themselves (as opposed to their characters). One actor has an accordion, which she begins to play. The other actors come back to the stage. A song. A dance. The lights go down, and an actor welcomes us, and talks of how they attempt to recreate the Globe experience: the house lights will be raised somewhat during the show to replicate the open-air of the outdoor theater. And we’re off.
This is King Lear.
With an EIGHT-person cast.
You read that right. Eight actors. Five actors take on multiple speaking roles, while all but Lear also take on non-speaking “spear-holder” roles. Some play musical instruments. All with seamless transitions: sometimes it’s merely a walk downstage, putting on a cap or jacket, and returning upstage as a new character. Well, all seamless, save for one: the actor playing both Edmund and Oswald has a second act sequence where he had to bounce back and forth between the two parts, played for comic relief.
Much has been made of the actor playing Lear, Joseph Marcell, being the butler in the early 90’s Will Smith sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”… but as I never watched the show, it wasn’t shocking at all to me to see him as an aging king descending into madness. He was very good, showing both his mental and physical deterioration (each time he talked of a broken heart, it was like he was struck with a mild heart attack, with a cumulative effect by the end of the play).
The other members of the cast were just as good. Daniel Birrie was wonderfully blustery as the malevolent bastard Edmund. Bill Nash’s Kent was the stillness at the eye of the hurricane, as he is needed to be. And Bethan Cullinane played both ousted daughter Cordelia AND the Fool, in a funny and heartbreaking combination.
I’ve often thought that Lear is Shakespeare’s ultimate triumph as a playwright, that this is his masterpiece on the page. But because of all that is in the play, the characters, the parallels, the subplots, madness and cruelty, there’s simply no way to have a great, let alone perfect, production onstage.
And I’m not going to say this is a perfect production. Nor is it transcendent. But this touring Lear, with its small cast, economically trimmed text, and mercurial direction by Bill Buckhurst, flirts with greatness, coming the closest to a full realization of the play that I have ever seen.
There are only a handful of dates left on the US tour, but if you’re Northern California or Seattle, try to catch this before it is lost to sight and sound forever, and living only in memory.