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The stage and screen star talks about her latest role opposite Glenda Jackson in King Lear
Cold, cruel, calculating. Those adjectives are often used to describe King Lear's eldest daughter, Goneril, who manipulates her father for her own ends. But those words weren't on Elizabeth Marvel's mind as she prepped to play the character for the current Broadway production of the Shakespeare tragedy, starring Tony winner Glenda Jackson in the title role.
In fact, at times it's not hard to sympathize with Marvel's Goneril and her sister, Regan (Aisling O'Sullivan). They lean into the pain that comes from being raised by a tyrannical father who showed little love for them yet heaps for their younger sister, Cordelia (Ruth Wilson). Sure, they turn patricidal as the play comes to its explosive conclusion, but Marvel points out that they are a product of their upbringing.
"That kind of behavior doesn't evolve out of a void," she says. "They're conditioned by a father who's abusive and [have] no mother or presence of nurturing. So their center doesn't hold and they devolve into really extreme, horrible behavior."
Marvel's interpretation of Goneril is punctuated by extreme behavior throughout. In King Lear's famous opening scene, when the monarch demands that his three daughters profess their love for him in order to receive their share of the inheritance, her Goneril is a bundle of nerves as she showers her father with false praise in order to get what she feels she deserves. After intermission, she's so head over heels in love with Pedro Pascal's Edmund that she rips off her underwear and has sex with him on the floor.
Choices like those may seem unconventional, but the Juilliard-trained actress, best known to TV audiences for her stints on House of Cards and Homeland, insists they come from the text. "When I do Shakespeare, I just sit with the words," she says. "I don't think about any other production or interpretation. With this play, there's so much sexuality in the language. I was thinking, this woman is the oldest of three -- why isn't she inheriting everything?"
The conclusion Marvel came to? Sheer sexism. "She's not a man, and she has no male heir," she says. "This is a woman who is in the last moment of her potential fertility, and she's in a marriage that has not been able to produce children. When her father curses her, he curses her womb -- it's her Achilles' heel. I just built from there. If she gets pregnant by [Edmund] the bastard, she burns her father's legacy all the way down to the ground."
Marvel is used to taking a nontraditional approach to roles in classic plays. She was avant-garde director Ivo van Hove's leading lady in A Streetcar Named Desire, Hedda Gabler and The Little Foxes, all at New York Theatre Workshop. And, after working with Sam Gold on his 2013 Broadway revival of Picnic, she was excited to reteam with the director for King Lear, especially since she gets to share the stage with Jackson, whom she's long admired.
"Interestingly enough, in such a large cast, she's the only other parent," says Marvel, who has a 12-year-old son with her husband, actor Bill Camp. "She's also very political, as I am. On breaks we have fantastic conversations about the state of the world. And, of course, acting opposite her is the thrill of a lifetime."
They also have something else in common: playing male Shakespeare parts. Marvel's last Bard role was Mark Antony in the Public Theater's controversial Shakespeare in the Park mounting of Julius Caesar. Because Gregg Henry, the actor playing Caesar, was made to resemble Donald Trump, his character's assassination ignited a media firestorm that inspired agitators to interrupt the play.
Even though it got to the point where Marvel had to be escorted in and out of Central Park by a bodyguard, she recalls having "a fabulous time. It was like a rock concert. It was intense, but it was a great joy. The irony is that I don't think any of those [protesters] understood it. If you read the play, you know that if you kill the tyrant, democracy dies."
While King Lear is attracting better-behaved audiences, its emotional highs and lows and three-and-a-half-hour running time make it just as challenging. "I'm not sure how we're all gonna keep it going," Marvel says with a laugh. But she has ways to stay focused and energized: writing, listening to podcasts, meditation. "It's really easy in this play to go very dark, so part of my daily practice is just practicing gratitude and positive behavior," she says. "My character is such a dark person, she goes to such a dark place that I need to balance myself."
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Diane Snyder writes about theatre for Time Out New York and The Telegraph. Follow her at @DianeLSnyder. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Elizabeth Marvel.