Local audiences may recognize Joseph Marcell from his run as Geoffrey the butler on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” He’ll soon appear on the San Luis Obispo stage as another imperious Brit: King Lear.
Marcell stars in the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre touring production of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, playing Tuesday at the Performing Arts Center. “King Lear” tracks the title monarch’s descent into madness when he’s all but abandoned by his family and his former subjects.
A Caribbean-born actor who now calls London home, Marcell is an established stage and screen presence with credits that include “Cry Freedom,” “Empire Road” and “EastEnders.” But he’s best known to American audiences as Geoffrey Butler, sarcastic servant to the wealthy Banks family.
Although Marcell described his six-season stint on “Fresh Prince” as a professional detour — “That is not really what my career is about,” he said — he doesn’t regret his time on the show.
“I thank heavens that I had the presence of mind to do it,” he said. “It has given me choice. It has given me the power of selection (which) I didn’t have before. It has given me a certain amount of credibility.”
One role he’s been eager to tackle is that of King Lear, considered one of Shakespeare’s most complex creations.
Old age has not been kind to Lear, once a hands-on “warrior king” who led his armies into battle.
“His whole life has been saying exactly what he thinks about everything. He’s a man who doesn’t understand the word ‘no,’ who’s always had his own way,” Marcell said. “When he becomes a man rather than a monarch, he discovers he can’t do that.”
When he retires, Lear decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, offering the largest share to the one who loves him best. Although Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield) and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat) shamelessly flatter their father, Cordelia (Bethan Cullinane) speaks honestly but bluntly about her affection for him.
Lear, enraged, disinherits Cordelia and divides her share between Goneril and Regan — then banishes the Earl of Kent (Bill Nash) when he complains about her mistreatment.
But Lear soon discovers he made the wrong choice when he encounters the disdain of his other daughters. Slowly losing his grip on reality, he winds up wandering the heath with his Fool (Cullinane again) and a disguised Kent.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester (John Stahl) experiences a similar tug of heart when his illegitimate son, Edmund (Daniel Pirrie), tricks him into believing his legitimate son, Edgar (Alex Mugnaioni), is trying to kill him.
Marcell, who has played Kent in the past, said stepping into the spotlight as Lear is “not as easy as it looks.”
“I thought (the roles of) Othello or Claudius in ‘Hamlet’ or even Angelo in ‘Measure for Measure’ (were) difficult, but they pale in comparison to Lear,” Marcell said. He added that his experiences in two previous productions — “Let There Be Love” by Kwame Kwei-Armah and “Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson — gave him insight into the role.
Asked what makes “King Lear” so demanding, Marcell said playing the mad monarch requires immense resources of emotional and physical strength.
“He’s an old man, but the play Shakespeare has written requires a vigorous body and an even more agile mind,” the actor explained. “In one sentence, he’s exhilarated and sad (and) angry.”
Further describing those infinitely changeable waves of “calm and explosion, explosion and calm,” Marcell compared Lear to the ocean.
“Sometimes there are these huge breaks. Sometimes there are smaller breaks. Sometimes it’s a calm sea,” he said. “It’s just totally unpredictable.”
Marcell said “King Lear” has been “a journey of discovery for me, which is fascinating, exhilarating and at times totally frustrating.”
Most importantly, he added, “It’s never dull.”
If you go
7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$24 to $58
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org