Joseph Marcell, who played Geoffrey the butler on TV’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” stars as the Shakespearean king when London’s Globe Theatre comes to Santa Monica
By Jenny Lower
When the touring production of “King Lear” comes to Santa Monica’s Broad Stage next month from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, it will be with a face eminently familiar to Angelenos — not to mention audiences in Austria, Germany, Denmark, Turkey and Malta.
Directed by Bill Buckhurst, the Shakespearean tragedy will star Joseph Marcell, best known for playing the British butler Geoffrey throughout six seasons of the 1990s Will Smith vehicle “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” As the sarcastic valet to the posh Banks family, Geoffrey is a part that, a few decades ago, might have made Marcell a shoo-in for the role of the aging monarch’s witty, impertinent Fool.
Marcell, who is 67, studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in northwest London and was an established actor with the Royal National Theatre before “Fresh Prince” made him a household name. In 1984, he joined the Council Artistic Directorate of the Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank and has since played other patriarchs there, including Leonato in the 2011 production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Then Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Globe, asked him to step in as the faltering king who unwisely decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, only to suffer the betrayal of the two eldest. Though Marcell initially declined the role because he felt he was too young, he eventually changed his mind and came to embrace the demanding part.
“The Victorians gave us the idea that [Lear] was this octogenarian who was decrepit and senile,” he says. Rather, “Shakespeare has written a play about a man who can no longer wield a broadsword for eight hours a day.”
Still, Lear’s identity as an erratic, rash sovereign who explodes into childish fits of pique before returning just as suddenly to tranquility required a certain mental, and physical, robustness.
“He’s like quicksilver,” Marcell says. “He cannot be pinned down. And the physical exertion alone tires you out.”
Given the part’s creative and bodily demands, the opportunity to play Lear often represents the crowning professional achievement for thespians who have already achieved a certain stature.
In Marcell’s case, the accomplishment is twofold: to his knowledge, his debut also marks the first time a non-white British actor has taken up the monarch’s mantle full-time. The cast also features an Indian actress as Lear’s middle daughter Regan, with German and Welsh actresses playing Goneril and Cordelia, respectively.
Though still relatively unusual, this type of color-blind casting is gaining momentum on London stages, where the Donmar Warehouse’s current all-female version of “Henry IV” set in a women’s prison features a black actress as Hotspur. Marcell, who was born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and raised in London from the age of 8, says the decision to make the royals a blended family was not intended as a social or political commentary.
“The play represents the globe — as in Shakespeare’s Globe, the globe on which we live, the globe that feeds us and takes care of us. The play represents all colors and all races,” he says. “It’s art for art’s sake, in the sense that it is about the words that Shakespeare has written, not the need to ameliorate whatever social problems we might have.”
Yet the universality of “Lear” and its enduring ability to speak to the issues of the day are precisely what have made it such a popular choice for staging. In a year that has seen several high-profile productions mounted on both sides of the pond, including one in New York starring John Lithgow and Annette Bening, Lear remains a character to which many aging Baby Boomers can relate. His fall from grace captures the indignities visited upon advanced age and echoes the soul-crushing, existential fears many retirees are beginning to face.
“Why am I being treated this way? Why am I being put in a home? Why does no one come to visit me? All those things that make you feel you’re absolutely useless,” Marcell explains. “Lear shows you that, damn it, even at his age he is still vital. He can still get angry. He’s fighting for the way things ought to be, not the way they’ve become.”
As for what he’s become, Marcell seems unusually well-adjusted to the legacy of his “Fresh Prince” days. Unlike other actors who chafe under the burden of being typecast (a dilemma noted by castmate Alfonso Ribeiro during his recent appearance on “Dancing with the Stars”), Marcell says that the NBC sitcom’s legacy, comprising a seventh of his 42-year acting career, has provided a platform to better wield his craft.
“It has given me an international credibility that I don’t think I would have had if I’d simply been a stage actor,” he says. “It has allowed me to have the attention of some very important people. But most of all, it has allowed me to bring into the theater people who otherwise would not have come.”
Never is that reality more apparent than during one fateful moment early in act one, scene four, when we first glimpse Lear’s descent into madness. Goneril has just insisted her father dismiss half his retinue of knights, causing Lear to falter in self-doubt. Keeping with the production’s pattern of breaking the fourth wall, Marcell implores the audience: “Does any here know me?”
Many nights, he’ll hear a voice call back from the gallery: “Geoffrey!”
“King Lear” opens Wednesday (7:30 p.m.) and continues through Nov. 16 at The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $39 to $87. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.