By Philippa Kelly
A month ago, Cal Shakes and the Oakland Theater Project, partnering with Play On! Shakespeare!, closed the world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s beautiful production of Lear, co-directed by Eric Ting and Dawn Monique Williams, and starring Twin Cities-based James A. Williams together with a cast drawn from our beloved Bay Area theater community. While we celebrated Lear, and the Season, with a Toast, what did Shakespeare’s actors do when they closed a show some 420 years ago?
Well, they didn’t! Shakespeare’s company, in which he and the actors were “sharers,” performed in repertory, sometimes bringing three or even four shows to the stage in one week. The actors took their props on and off-stage: for King Lear, for example, a coronet, a crown; daggers, swords; tin to be shaken wildly to evoke the sound of thunder; sulphur to be lit for lightning; a bladder of pig’s blood, a bandage and egg whites for Gloucester’s eye-gouging scene; more pig’s blood stored for the stabbings. And a map of ancient Britain. Maps developed a huge social significance in Shakespeare’s time, allowing upper-class people to feed their interest in travel and expansionism from the safety of their cozy armchairs. In a time without microsurgery and antibiotics, travel was dangerous and often fatal, so maps provided a means of venturing risk-free (and “worldly!”) into “new” lands.
After a performance was done and the actors had danced their “jig” to keep the 2000-3000 audience members entertained as they filed out of the theater, each actor would remove his last costume – one of the several elaborate and expensive outfits he might don for a show. Young boys who’d played beautiful young women took off their wigs, scrubbing at the blend of poisonous white lead and vinegar used to make a dreadful skin-whitening mixture called “ceruse.” The actors would be ready next day for the 2 p.m. call, possibly to perform an entirely different play.
The enduring interest of King Lear, and of Shakespeare, however, is not so much in learning what actors did back then – it’s about what we do now. The recent death of Queen Elizabeth II has sparked a renewed interest in the monarchy. No matter what political system we live in, human beings seem to be in love with kings and queens and symbols of romantic elegance. How many jewels studded Queen Elizabeth’s crown? (2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 269 pearls, and 4 rubies.) How heavy was it? (2.3 pounds). But Shakespeare knew that “monarchy” was not principally about super-human people anointed by God to grace burnished thrones. It was about enslavement and oppression and brutality. And, therefore, kingship was ultimately about democracy – about seeing those values of entitlement for the concoctions they are, while understanding the thrill, the intrigue of priceless value and privilege. We still experience these emotions – if we don’t have kings of our own, we make Kardashians.
It’s somewhat ironic that today Shakespeare receives so many dents in the “crown” bestowed on him by King James and by the centuries of bardolatry accorded him thereafter. Kicked off contemporary performing schedules and syllabi, Shakespeare has undergone his own “dethroning” of sorts as other languages and cultures reject colonial shackles. It’s worth noting, however, that Shakespeare spent his whole working life questioning the right of kings to supremacy when, more often than not, the more power the elite have, the more powerful the effects of their acts of human folly.
Shakespeare was above all a storyteller. And as James A. Williams says, “Storytellers aren’t at their core concerned with money or fame. True storytellers like Marcus Gardley have a need to be understood. They don’t want to leave this world without telling their stories… and it’s the specificity of a story that makes it universal.” In the storytelling of Lear, the first scene represents the full measure of public adoration granted to the king. And by absorbing that opening moment, we may ready ourselves to feel the ensuing rage, abandonment, sorrow, confusion and humiliation that sends Lear into the storm. “Lear doesn’t walk out into the storm,” says James Williams. “He is driven there by the magnitude of his rage and regret and confusion.” The heath is a place, set alive in specific ways by the thunder and rain and chaos generated within each production. And when audiences enter the heath with Lear, for us as well as for Lear the heath becomes more than a place – it is a state of being. This is the power of storytelling.
It’s possible to grow old but not wise, especially if, like Lear, you have been told that you are “everything.” Lear is about majesty, but not the titular majesty associated with kings and earls and dukes and princesses. The true majesty of this play, as both Shakespeare and Gardley see it, is in the capacity of frail human beings, steeped in narcissism and folly, to travel despite great pain across the “heath” of banishment, eventually recognizing an essential human truth: that majesty isn’t in bells and whistles, furs and red carpets. True majesty lies in the capacity, hard-earned, to dethrone the self from the center of the universe. This is what Lear and Gloucester learn – though near the end of their lives, they are not too late to see and feel this truth. And by acknowledging their place within humanity and not above it, they also come to see that the dearest miracles are not sent down from above – they emerge from the human heart, which, if we are lucky, can come to know love and forgiveness. Lear and Gloucester see, too, that things in this life are rarely fair – that justice lies not in a public win, but in the simple capacity to endure. And to thrive, even for a moment. And to love. And to forgive. We don’t need a lifetime of wealth and pampering, it turns out, to make such discoveries – all we need is curiosity and an open heart. And theater.
A theater is far more than a place, however beautiful the space – a theater is YOU, and we are nothing without you.
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