Who is Lear? Next month at the Folger: Joseph Marcell

Joseph Marcell as King Lear and Rawiri Paratene as Gloucester. | Jordan Wright

Joseph Marcell has become Lear again.

The native of St. Lucia, board member of Shakespeare’s Globe, member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and one-time global television star, is on another tour of “King Lear,” the Bard’s grandest, most difficult, most compelling tragedy.

This Shakepeare’s Globe production will be coming to the Folger Theatre for a limited run September 5-21, bringing Marcell in full dudgeon – raging, as Dylan Thomas said, against the dying of the light. Shakepeare’s Globe’s production of “Hamlet” played for a limited run earlier this summer.

Marcell is sure to be remembered not just as Lear but as Geoffrey, the imperious butler on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the ’90s television sitcom which made Will Smith a huge star. It didn’t do badly for Marcell in the recognition department.

“I realized when we toured that this show struck a chord worldwide, from England to Turkey,” Marcell has said. He told reporters about an incident when he was touring with Lear at Brighton in England. There comes a point when Lear asks himself (and the audience to some extent), “Who is Lear, who am I?” Someone in the audience yelled: “You’re Geoffrey.”

He is the first black actor to portray Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The part is exhausting for any actor, but “it strikes a chord with people,” said Marcell. “It is tremendously difficult, but it speaks to us. He’s a very complicated character. He is a warrior king, autocratic, prideful, but he’s become tired of 50 years of fighting and killing. He makes mistakes in judgment.

“He will not accept that he is old. That’s the crux of the matter. He can’t accept that he can’t any longer have his way and, tragically, he sets the stage for his own further downfall. It’s a generational battle as much as anything with the other two daughters.”

To Marcell, there is nothing like performing on stage.

“In touring, we’ve been in all sorts of venues, all kinds of theaters, big, small, outdoors, indoors, which makes every performance completely different. You cannot duplicate it. The outdoor-indoor thing is about space as much as anything. You have to project more, get the voice beyond the first two rows, and you’re also at the mercy – or, in one instance, the blessing – of Mother Nature.

“We had an outdoor performance once, in the afternoon, and right during the scene where Lear is wandering with the fool in the barren landscape, full of wind and fury, and he’s raging and blind in the dark and rain, why, we had a big storm come up, wind and rain and all that, and we played through, and it was like nature supplied our special effects. It was simply rough magic.

“In a theater like the Folger, indoors, compact, small, it’s different, things become more intimate, a kind of pact between actors and audience. There’s a world of difference between playing outside and inside, certainly there is.

“It’s very special to be where I am, to do what I do,” Marcell said. “But to be at the Globe, to be where it all started in some ways, to play The Big One, that’s challenge and gratifying.”

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