The solid “King Lear” at Folger Theatre is so modestly mounted, it could fit in the pockets of other recent productions of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy.
Eight actors play all of the roles in the sprawling tale, compared with 20 who performed alongside John Lithgow for the Public Theater in New York this summer and the 50 who surrounded Simon Russell Beale of late at Britain’s National Theatre.
The Folger’s “Lear,” a touring version from Shakespeare’s Globe — the National’s neighbor on London’s South Bank — reveals that as long as textual and technical fundamentals are securely handled, size doesn’t much matter. In some ways, director Bill Buckhurst’s approach reinforces the old maxim about necessity being a reliable parent to ingenuity: There is on this occasion some fortuitous doubling of roles, as in the actress who portrays Cordelia, Bethan Cullinane, also playing Lear’s Fool. (Thereby layering irony onto Lear’s declaration, uttered as he cradles Cordelia’s lifeless body, that “My poor Fool is hanged.”)
By such advantageous economizing does this “Lear” benefit. It’s a thoroughly accessible version of the play, one that at the same time resists strumming the strings of the tragedy too solemnly. As a result, it’s a production particularly well-suited to first-time visitors. And though it may not be the most wrenching interpretation of this pillar of Western literature that you’re ever likely to come across, it more than capably gets the job done.
Starting with Joseph Marcell’s scrupulous rendering of the vain and shortsighted king, and proceeding to the crisp portrayals of toxic daughters Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield) and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat) and onto the vile, double-dealing Edmund (Daniel Pirrie), the performances are all commendably vigorous.
Jonathan Fensom’s set is, intentionally, nothing to speak of — merely a curtain strung up across the middle of the stage, and his costumes look as if they were bought at a yard sale: The evil sisters wear dowdy robes; the Fool dons the sort of knitted cap that a kid might imagine his mom knitted to make him look, well, like a fool.
This unpretentious aesthetic is very much in vogue; it was on view at Folger in 2012 in a sleek “Hamlet” from Shakespeare’s Globe that similarly was assayed by a cast of eight. (Another of the company’s compact “Hamlets” made a short stop at Folger in July). A variation on this minimalist style is practiced by a highly skilled, New York City-based company, Fiasco Theater, which premiered a fine production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at Folger in April and then staged its highly regarded “Cymbeline” there.
The house lights remain on for the Globe’s “Lear,” a carryover from its open-air home base on the Thames, but also a gesture that makes us more aware and perhaps more comfortable with the artificial environment of the play.
Music is a leavening ingredient here, with actors on trombone, guitar and accordion accompanying others who break into folk songs. The landscape of this “Lear,” then, is less a far-off country than a theater, and that orientation feels as if it’s a comforting choice for a play that wants to lead us so starkly into the shadows of despair.
“Lear” is the story of a mighty monarch brought to his knees by his own misguided judgments and forced to confront the terrible truths of life that had been concealed to him in his cocoon of godlike authority. Cast out by the daughters to whom he bequeaths his realm, he now faces existence for what it truly is: a descent toward infirmity, senility and death. In Marcell’s pained countenance, Lear’s grappling with loss and victimhood is persuasive; when he complains that he is “more sinned against than sinning,” you believe that this proud man’s derangement comes about in part because a rejection of his reality is easier than his accepting responsibility for it.
As the play’s “other” madman, Edgar — who feigns craziness as a defense against a world sinking into disorder — Alex Mugnaioni is robustly appealing, and John Stahl and Bill Nash are demonstrable assets as Lear’s stalwart allies, Gloucester and Kent.
“Lear” is a very long play; this incarnation, which clocks in at a fairly concise three hours, goes by relatively quickly. It seems to want to spare us some degree of the heaviness with which the king’s ordeal freights the evening. This makes it something less than “Lear” at maximum force. And still, with the lightness of inventiveness, more than worthwhile.