I’ll not lie to you about my ability to catch every word and spoken nuance of the Bard’s perhaps most celebrated tragedy, King Lear. Even at 16 and studying English Lit ‘O’ Level, my ability to comprehend and commit to memory those important scenes and legendary stanzas was always a challenge, and I usually ended up with some crib sheet or published notes to help me process the play.
So I did my research before joining Star publisher, Mae Wayne, and a host of Shakespeare fans and theatre-missers from across the nation. Well, I can hardly call them theatre-goers when we don’t have a single theatre in the country, but that’s for later. The Globe Theatre production started its tour of the UK and Europe in April, starring thespian son of the soil Joseph Marcell as the doomed King Lear, and a tightly cast ensemble of players appearing in multiple parts, garnering positive reviews from every run and particular praise for Marcell’s impassioned and heart-wrenching portrayal of a vain man’s plunge into insanity.
Taking a seat in the front row of the Gaiety on Friday night, I was impressed to find myself in the company of Dame Pearlette Louisy, Dr. Kenny Anthony, Derek Walcott and host of local dignitaries among a riveted audience which immediately immersed itself in this rare theatrical treat, as the cast played drums, recorder and accordion and sang a rousing welcome to the play.
As the stage was set and the plot developed in the early acts, I’m assured by the more forthright attendees that I was not alone in getting a bit lost among the shenanigans and leaping character changes, but the beautifully descriptive program helped keep us informed of the storyline and the maze of names and characters.
For me, the production came alive about half way into the first half, when ‘King Lear’ started to fall into place, and the talent of these incredibly versatile actors drew me into the unfolding tragedy, with Joseph Marcell leading the way as the increasingly comical, then heart-rendingly pathetic father who disowns his most loyal daughter in favour two others who turn on him at his most vulnerable hour.
Joseph Marcell should never again be burdened with that moniker G-T-B, because his sheer power and ownership of the role of King Lear proves his talent is so much more than the po-faced, smart-mouthed foil to Will Smith’s early TV antics: his intense, faraway stare artfully depicted a burgeoning disconnect from reality and descent into paranoid madness, fuelled by the sheer vindictive hatred and conniving disdain of his two eldest daughters. The initial detached stillness of Lear’s developing dementia explodes into sputtering rage at the viperous Goneril and Regan, then lurches into seemingly hilarious drunken exchanges with servants and the wisecracking Fool, as his kingdom, his family and his sanity unravels around him.
Marcell’s range was expansive and hard as I tried to fault him for overacting, in my book he never went too far, but at times delivered a really emotive moment in an understated quip or expression, even a sarcastic eye roll reminiscent of the haughty domestic Bel Air servant who shall not be named.
Not to be underestimated was the cast of a mere eight supporting actors, every one of whom played multiple roles, donning capes, headgear and breastplates (even a Geordie accent) to pull off more than twenty characters between them. Stand-out performances apart from Mr. Marcell were numerous. How about Bethan Cullinane as the fragile and heartbroken Cordelia who is swept off to France after being disowned by her father, only to return to the stage as the wise-crazy Fool, complete with irreverent attitude, Teletubby-inspired hat and very large pants?
Or the snooty Duke of Cornwall in his high-collared robes morphing into an almost naked, mud-covered, gibbering idiot as Gloucester’s ‘good’ son Edgar in disguise as Old Tom – sounds complicated, but the ease of Matthew Romaine’s genius physical performance made all of his characters credible and won many ladies’ hearts in the audience. The despicable illegitimate brother Edwin donned a boxy jacket and silly hat to become a comically camp and sarcastic servant – all seemingly choreographed for crutches by a brave and awesome Oliver Boot, who delivered an energetic array of roles despite a painful foot injury. Cudos to Mr. Boot for embodying the legend that ‘the show must go on’!
The impressive physicality of the production is a credit to the skills of Choreographer Georgina Lamb and Fight Director Kevin McCurdy, who certainly know how to pull off a decent swordfight in a ten-foot square area. Add the musical interludes performed by the players on an impressive mini-orchestra of instruments, the slick and low-key stage production maximising every nook and cranny of a fairly minimalist design, the actors generating wind and thunder visual and sound effects using a curtain and two sheets of metal during the climactic storm scene – there are a dozen reasons why the Globe Theatre’s King Lear really was a brilliant production and ultimately the audience loved it, despite admittedly having been lost for at least part of the play. Certainly the quote of the night was understood by everyone and brought the house down, as the blinded Duke of Gloucester is advised by Lear to “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not” – delivered with a long, cheeky glance at the PM sitting not 20 feet away.
Kudos is due to the Cultural Development Foundation for landing this first in St. Lucia, and I’m sure they did everything in their power to pull off a high-end event but in reality, Gaiety as a venue was the biggest problem with ‘King Lear’. It’s not a theatre, and a couple of hundred bums became uncomfortably numb in their seats as the three hour production progressed; acoustics were challenging, and the Globe elected to perform without mics, so after the first few rows audience members were unable to hear the actors. Intermission refreshments were a disgrace, with a long trek out to the bar where a few beers and bottles of water were being sold from a cooler by folks with no change and a hundred thirsty clamouring customers. A revenue opportunity missed, and a bit of a letdown for the theatre-goers who were deserving of a quick cold one before the second half – lessons to be learnt for next time.
At least I hope there is a next time, because there are a thousand reasons why productions like ‘King Lear’ and Derek Walcott’s recent triumph ‘O Starry Starry Night’ are needed and welcome in Saint Lucia – a nation without the Arts is deprived of a myriad of benefits and experiences, as Walcott, Marcell and a host of other literary talents and influencers will attest. One can only hope that this year’s pair of theatrical firsts indicate that government is getting the message from writers, actors, readers, artists, teachers, students and lovers of literature and theatre, and is making plans to continue the cultivation of our cultural desert by promoting, encouraging and developing the Arts in