Diehard Shakespeare lovers, college students, and folks just wanting to experience fine London acting crowded into Campbell Hall on Friday night for a full-strength, three-hour encounter with the monumental tragedy,King Lear. The play’s 20-plus characters were played with versatility (and a little confusion — for those of us rusty on Lear) by a pared down cast of eight actors, who doubled — and tripled — up on parts. Crisp classically-trained diction could not ultimately triumph over Campbell Hall’s soggy acoustics, muffling a fair portion of the unamplified lines for all but the closest seats. Nevertheless, the gamut of the Globe’s overall skills won out. Not only was Shakespeare delivered with authority, but plenty of light-hearted extras served the spoonful of sugar to help the tragedy go down. And Lear, when done right, always goes down hard.
The Bard had a fondness for plays within plays, and one of the charms of Globe Theatre on Tour is the impression of a traveling troupe of players passing through your village. Touring was an essential aspect of the original 17th century Globe, a practice resumed “after a 400-year break” by the present company in 2007. As audience members entered Campbell Hall on Friday, Globe members were visible checking the set, chatting with the audience, and — as with actress Gwendolen Chatfield — playing accordion. Such is the Globe’s style of soft beginning, a gradual merge with life beyond the play. The show began with a kind of Greek chorus, with all the cast on stage singing a specially penned prelude to the story of Lear, but fashioned like a traditional English folk song. Similar moral choruses were sung after intermission and as a finale. All of this makes permeable the fourth wall, pulling the audience in and bringing the players out, melding life and art.
The role of Lear was powerfully acted by Joseph Marcell, best known for his TV role as the butler Geoffrey in Will Smith’s 1990s break-out TV series, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Chatfield’s primary role was Goneril. The rest of the primary casting included Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar, Bill Nash as Earl of Kent, Daniel Pirrie as Edmund, Shanaya Rafaat as Regan, and John Stahl as Earl of Gloucester. Bethan Cullinane gave a truly outstanding performance as Lear’s Fool, doubling also as the misunderstood and estranged daughter Cordelia.