In the most notorious remark made by a public radio host this year (Canadians excepted), Ira Glass tweeted back in July that he found Shakespeare to be “not relatable, unemotional.” He had just watched John Lithgow play the title role in King Lear, and while the actor impressed him, the This American Life star just couldn’t get into the tragedy.
While he may have been unwittingly commenting on the quality of the production, Glass’s comment was glib and embarrassing. Not relatable? In the years since World War II, Lear has established itself as the Shakespeare play that arguably best mirrors the modern world. Post-9/11, its relevance seems even greater.
In Lear’s world, as in ours, the traditional order has been upended, authority has fragmented, and certainties have crumbled. The king’s aura of invincibility has suddenly vanished, replaced by an intense awareness of his vulnerability. If his story isn’t reflective of 21st-century America — a shaken superpower struggling to deal with multiple threats, at a time when it has largely lost faith in its leaders and institutions — what is?
“It’s incredible how pertinent these plays can seem, 400 years on,” marveled Bill Buckhurst, director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’s touring production of the play, which UCSB Arts & Lectures will present in Campbell Hall on November 20 and 21. “Lear is unbelievably devastating. It takes us to a place which we might not want to engage with. But Shakespeare is making a point about the awful experiences we have to deal with sometimes.”
Like, for instance, right now.
The title character — an aging monarch who bequeaths his kingdom to two undeserving daughters and soon discovers he has made a horrible mistake — will be portrayed by Joseph Marcell, who is best known for his regular role in the 1990s television comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“He’s one of the finest classical actors I’ve ever had a chance to work with,” Buckhurst said. “He was a renowned Shakespearean actor before he was a sitcom star. I was thrilled that he was interested in playing the part.”
And what does he bring to the role? “He’s able to straddle the extremes of emotion that the part requires. He plays the tyrannical, all-powerful king with great conviction, and he also has extraordinary vulnerability. There are no spotlights used in this show. Joe, and the other actors, put the spotlight on themselves through their brilliant use of language.”
That stripped-down style will be familiar to those who caught one of the troupe’s previous productions, such as Hamlet or The Comedy of Errors. “We try to capture the spirit of early touring theaters, which traveled with a very simple stage and a few props,” Buckhurst explained. “There are eight actors who play all 25 parts, as well as all the music.
“The nature of this type of storytelling is quite fast, and there’s certainly plenty going on. We create the famous storm sequence in a way that reflects the spirit of the early productions. When we play indoors, we bring the house lights up, so there is shared light between the audience and the actors. The actors can see the audience, just as the audience can see the actors. It’s a very communal experience. It brings the audience into the world of the play a little bit more. You feel like you’ve been spoken to, as opposed to being spoken at.”
Buckhurst hopes that the approach will help make his King Lear a more immediate and — yes — relatable experience than some Shakespeare productions. After all, he notes, “The human story it tells — a man who loses everything but discovers himself in the process — is timeless and universal, and deeply affecting when you experience it in the theater. On that level, we can all identify with it.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’s production of King Lear at Campbell Hall on Thursday and Friday, November 20 and 21, at 8 p.m. Call (805 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.