British actor discovers the depths of this iconic character

Joseph Marcell plays the lead in the Globe Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” coming to The Lensic on Thursday. (Courtesy of Performance Santa Fe)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Joseph Marcell’s King Lear is no doddering old fool.

“My Lear is a warrior-king,” said the actor. “He’s not a senile, tired old authoritarian … he’s a leading-soldiers-from-the-front kind of king.”

Marcell is playing the lead in the Globe Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which is coming to The Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Oct. 30, through Performance Santa Fe.

Just after wrapping up a matinee performance at the London theater in August, pronouncing himself both “knackered” and “famished,” Marcell spoke in a teleconference to reporters about the play’s upcoming tour through the United States.

In describing the character he plays, Marcell continued, “It comes to the point in life where he’s had enough. He has been fighting, killing, acquiring land.” His Lear is not abdicating the throne because he is incapable, the actor continued, but simply because he no longer wants the responsibility of overseeing it all, so he decides to split his kingdom among his three daughters.

But he also doesn’t want to accept the fact that he is old, adds Marcell.

“He will not accept not having his own way,” he continued. “And finally when his three girls dare to tell him that he can’t have his own way – outrageous!”

Calling it a play about miscommunication between the generations, Marcell said, “Every day, I discover something new.” And, he said, he thinks of his 25-year-old daughter and tries “to be a better father.”

A British citizen and member of the Globe Theatre’s artistic board, Marcell is best known on this side of the pond for playing the sardonic butler Geoffrey in the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” television series from 1990-96.

While he has had an extensive career appearing in various television shows, he also appeared in “Othello” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in “Much Ado About Nothing” for the Globe.

And he also had played the role of Kent in “King Lear” earlier in his career, a character “who operates purely from love,” Marcell said. “In my view, Lear operates from love as well, if misguided.”

After that experience of watching Lear from another role in the play, he noted, “Young actors have an arrogance: ‘I can say that better!’ But when it’s your turn, it’s not quite as easy as that.”

“I played Othello when I was 34,” Marcell added. “I would like to play him now that I’m 67 … . That will be the thing that keeps me young.”

“That thing” is finding different interpretations and mining the substance of plays that are half a millennium old.

For instance, in a scene where King Lear encounters Gloucester, who has been blinded amid the plotting for Lear’s kingdom, he tells the blind man, “If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.” Marcell said he has been questioning whether to stress the word “my” or the word “eyes” in saying that line.

“At that point is where Lear’s cruelty ends and he becomes compassionate toward Gloucester,” he said.

Expanding on the experience of performing Shakespeare, Marcell said, “It’s about the word that has lasted these 500 years, and how special they (the words) are. We make them as real as we can, we make them our own.”

From England, the tour headed to the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., Sept. 5 for a bit more than two weeks, then to Philadelphia, New York and Boston, before arriving in Santa Fe. From here, it will hit three different locations in California through November.

Touring involves continual adjustments to the new locations, Marcell noted.

“A lot of fat has been taken out of the production,” he added. The dynamic and fast-paced production leaves the audience little slack to sit back and admire the goings-on, he said.

“You have to be part of the production,” Marcell said. “You are part of my kingdom, seeing the decisions I make.”

While some might say seeing one “King Lear” is enough, he disagrees.

“That presupposes that there is a definitive performance of King Lear. In my humble opinion, I don’t think so,” Marcell said. “There have been different interpretations of the play. That’s what makes it so wonderful … . Hopefully it will continue when I’m in my grave.”

And while some people see playing Lear as the apex of an actor’s career, Marcell isn’t ready to look at everything as being downhill from here. He sees playing Lear, he said, “not as a crowning of a career but as a prize of an ongoing career.”

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