The Mad King of Bel-Air


“Aarrrrghghghghgghhg…arrrrrrrrghghghghgh” – King Lear

When I heard that Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey the Butler from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) was playing King Lear in the Globe’s travelling production, I was all like “Unnnncle Phiiiil!!!!” But then I calmed down, and bought tickets.

When my excitement settled, I started to get slightly apprehensive. King Lear is my favourite Shakespeare play and apparently the comedy was going to be brought out in this production. The comedy!? Out of King Lear!? I would be less surprised to hear that Sophie’s Choice: The Musical was coming to town. And as much as I love Mr. Marcell, I could fully imagine a performance he was in devolving into silliness. Also, the run-time had been cut down by a full hour… This was going to be a massacre.

How much the better then that the Globe’s performance swept all of my doubts away. It was at once riveting, terrifying, hilarious and impressive. Joseph Marcell cuts a fierce Lear, barrelling thunder out of his mouth towards his ‘ungrateful’ daughters. As the interval approaches and Lear is foisted into the wilderness, Marcell’s performance becomes all the better as he unleashes the absurd comedy that he is best known for. He is truly able to draw comedy out of the madness, and Buckhurst’s direction has him place emphasis on all the most ridiculous elements.

What demonstrates that this is a strong production is that the comedy doesn’t overbear and detract from the tragedy. If anything, it intensifies it; the abrupt shifts in tone leaving us on the back foot for when Marcell breaks down into a pitiable wreck.

The rest of the cast are all extremely competent, with Dickon Tyrell’s (isn’t that a Game of Thrones character?) portrayal of Kent shining out in particular. The only actor to not play multiple roles, since Kent himself is engaging in a double-act, Tyrell commands the stage with his bold northern accent.

Yes, I did say the only actor to not play multiple roles, because this ambitious production has 8 actors take on 18 roles. Due to the break-neck pace of this production (characters leap on stage whilst the previous scene isn’t even completely finished) the cast become a whirlwind of costumes. Along with the multi-purpose wooden stage which seamlessly converts from court, to hovel, to military battlements, the whole production is reminiscent of a pop-up travelling troupe.

It was not a completely seamless act. I found Oliver Boot’s camped-up Oswald pretty unbearable, along with a scene in which Boot was supposed to be playing two characters at once on stage. Leaping across the stage to have conversations with himself, the play plunged too deeply into farce, which didn’t exactly flatter the more serious subject matter.

This was also the case with the famous eye-gouging scene, which was pretty much played for slapstick, with Reagan squashing an eyeball under her heel and giggling at the audience. Considering the comedic tone of the whole performance, there was potential here to smack the audience in the face by shifting to a darker mood, but alas the farce continued.

These however were my only quibbles, and minor ones at that. The production was a fantastically-blended tragicomedy that proved King Lear need not be all doom and gloom, as is so often the case. The performance continues its run for another week here in Cambridge and I strongly encourage you to see it. If my review hasn’t persuaded you, then ask yourself this question:

Do you want to see Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince, in his pyjamas, wearing a crown of twigs, flapping his arms, squawking like an eagle and leaping off stage into some bushes?

I thought so.

King Lear is running from Wednesday 17th – Saturday 27th July at the Master’s Garden, Corpus Christi College. Tickets can be bought via. Cambridge Arts Theatre: