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BWW Interviews: For Joseph Marcell, Leading KING LEAR is 'Extraordinary'

Joseph Marcell is best known for his role on the hit '90s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in which he played Geoffrey, the butler. Since then, this former comedy star has taken up Shakespeare and is now on an international tour as the title character in The Globe Theatre's production of KING LEAR. He took the time to speak with BroadwayWorld about the Shakespearean experience, audiences' reactions around the world, and the challenges of such a role.


So, you're in the Globe Theatre's National Tour of KING LEAR, which sounds awesome. Can you tell me about the show? There's a very small cast, I know.

Yes, there are eight actors, and we perform the whole play. We make the music, we do the sound effects, we act the roles. Yes, it's small, but perfectly formed.

So does each of you play an instrument, then?

Yeah, we all play musical instruments. Everything is freshly prepared. Nothing is recorded. Everything's live.

I've heard that some of the double-casting plays into Shakespeare's irony. Can you tell me about that?

The casting of multiple roles being played by one actor is how Shakespeare did it. That comes down to us from the Bard. And it allows actors to delineate various roles by simply changing hats or changing a coat, changing a jacket, or whatever. And it's not a Hollywood production, unfortunately, it's simply about the words, and the only thing we have from Shakespeare is the words. We don't have his productions. They were not filmed, and so the Globe has decided that because it's called "Shakespeare's Globe," and the globe being the world, that the only thing that Shakespeare's left us are the words, and therefore the words are the most important.

I've also seen that this production is pretty audience involved as well.

Yes, well this is not an audience participation production. It's simply that what we do, we take away the fourth wall. So our audiences are not allowed- [chuckles] well, audiences can do what they like really- but we include our audience in our plays. So we go and we greet our audiences. We go out into the auditoriums and we talk to them, we break the ice, as it were, and the house lights are kept on. So the audience can see us, and we can see them. So it becomes a shared experience rather than a people sitting back in the dark awaiting entertainment. So our audiences become part of it. They become the townsfolk, they become the armies and stuff simply by being there, not by being asked to carry spears and things like that, no.

Wow! That sounds like a very intimate experience.

It becomes a very personal experience for our audience, yes it does. If you imagine that when you're at The Globe in London, there are about 1,500 people in any given performance; 700 are standing, and 800 are sitting, and they all feel a personal involvement in what's going on.

In this production, you're playing the title character, and you're of course costumed in normal, not really royal, clothes. So what goes into playing the character of Lear?

What we have done is we have presented a medieval interpretation of the play as would have been presented by Shakespeare's company of eight actors. We do not have the facility to have a jewel-encrusted crown and all that kind of stuff. The special effects, the sights of the production are not the important thing. What is important is the words that Shakespeare's written, which are much more interesting than what we can do with it or how we can dress it. For me, playing the role is extraordinary, it's awfully hard work, I get terribly hungry by the end of it, and it's a challenge. It continues to be a challenge, and every day, every performance is a discovery of my perception of a certain moment in the play.

But our production of KING LEAR is that of a touring theatre company that arrives in a town, let's say a town like Oxford in England, or Cambridge, or somewhere, and they enter the marketplace, they put up their set, their stage, they go around telling the town that, "we're in town, come and see us, come and see us, we're going to be doing this production of KING LEAR," and they're dressed as normal people. The king wears a crown, but you know, he's dressed like kings were in those days. They were the true renaissance men. They had brains and brawns. They led from the front, they were not administrators, especially in Lear's time. He led armies, and he was a vigorous man. It's simply that he could not wield a broad sword for eight to twelve hours anymore. His arms were tired, but he certainly wasn't frail. And that is simply what we've done. So what we're presenting is a king who leads, who leads by example and discovers that there's a difference between the monarch and the man. And the man cannot deal with the stuff comes across from the family, and in the end, it's a family drama really.

Yeah, and one good thing about Lear is that it always seems to be relevant. And universal themes include aging, power, and stuff like that. So how do you think your different audiences have been able to relate to this show?

Well, our audiences take what they want out of the play. In Turkey, the audiences found it outrageous that daughters could treat their own father in such a way. In Germany, they kind of understood, and they really went for the more subtle illustrations of human relationships that Shakespeare has outlined in the play. In Britain, they just find it funny and terribly sad and terribly moving. Most people find whatever it is they want from the play because it's a complete piece. It's not an essay about the kind of social development of a nation or any such thing. It's simply the examination of a man's misunderstanding of his family, really.

That's one thing that would be cool about taking a show on tour to so many countries, because the different cultures would latch onto things differently.

Absolutely. That's the interesting thing. In the end, every country has its own perspective, and the play somehow fits in. And most nations- well, all nations- understand the aging process and the difficulties for people who are not as vigorous as they once were. Yes, and in every country that we've traveled across, Europe and Britain, and the USA, people have been able to reconcile this and understand it in every country.

It's not one that's performed as much in regional theatres, so it's cool that these cities that might not otherwise get to see the Globe production.

Oh, it's amazing! I can't tell you how flattered and honored we are to be invited the USA to bring our production, which is not grand, but is perfect, I'd say, to let you experience it. It's a wonderful honor, and we're very proud of it, and we're very proud to have been invited. And in the end, we have no record of, there's no film of Shakespeare's production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE, or AS YOU LIKE IT, or ROMEO AND JULIET, or even KING LEAR, all we have is the play itself, the words that were written, and to say those words in a way that appeals to people in their 2014 or 2013, is a tremendous honor. We are very proud, and I'll say it again, we are honored.

So what do you have after this?

For me, we were working this year, at the beginning of the year we were working on Derek Walcott's Nobel Prize-winning poem "Omeros," with the director who directed LEAR, Bill Buckhurst, and we presented it for four performances in February this year, so we will return, we will rework that next year, and then that's the next thing I'm doing, which will be more verse [laughs]... You have to take what you're getting.

That sounds like a dream, definitely an actor's dream right now.

Oh yes [laughs]... An actor's pulling out his hair dream [laughs]. But no, it's wonderful, it's charming, and it's very flattering. It's lovely, it's great. So that'll be the next one, and Boston and New York and Washington DC have heard of it and seem to want it, so we shall see. Maybe we'll bring it to Santa Fe and to St. Louis, and everywhere. We shall see. That's my next one, and I don't know which Shakespeare I'm doing next, but we shall see.


KING LEAR plays The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, CA through Nov. 16. Click here for more information and tickets.

Check out this promo for the US tour of KING LEAR!

Photo credits: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre


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