It’s bad enough I don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare’s life or world. But I can’t even say I’ve actually seen many of his plays performed. I mean, the texts were intended for the stage after all.
The last production I can recall seeing was at an amphitheater in a park by the Cincinnati Art Museum – and I caught a only a few scenes at that. I stumbled on a public performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in medias res. It was hot outside, I was a little drunk, and I had no idea what was going on in the play. I soon left to find a bathroom, I think. I’m not even sure why I was there in the first place, who I was with, or even when this was my life, exactly. It must have been some sort of midsummer art festival during college – and equally as enchanting, apparently. For as much as I can’t recall, I can call up glimpses of Titania’s leafy crown. I can hear a donkey-headed Bottom braying. I can taste the IPA I was sipping from a cheap plastic cup, already warm and flat in the heat.
Before that I saw Macbeth. On a TV carted into a high school classroom. My junior-year English teacher – the late Mr. Cahill with his tweed-patched blazers, his breath stale from cigarettes and cafeteria coffee, his chalkboard listing smutty words you couldn’t say in class (“boring”), the rapturous “Great God!” he’d yawp when reciting “The World Is Too Much With Us” – had my class watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1979 release of Macbeth with Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench. With its bare, black staging, this was a powerful performance. I still conjure it up whenever I think of Macbeth. But I think I liked it all the more because in my coffee-drenched, cigarette-stenched, ego-hunched intellectual coming-of-age, I wanted to impress Mr. Cahill. I wanted him to like that I liked what he liked.
We watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that year, too. A classmate – he’s a successful editor in New York now – guffawed in surprise, in glee, in contempt when Branagh javelins his rapier into Claudius’ back and sends a chandelier swinging down onto him in Act 5’s climactic bloodbath. I always felt like that classmate was always several beats ahead of my own sophistication.
Certainly I’ve seen other plays. There’s no way I haven’t seen other plays. And not just on film. I hope. I suppose I can’t count those adaptations we’d gathered for on the gymnasium floor whenever the children’s theater came to school, can I? I even rented Lawrence Olivier’s famed production of Henry V after I read the play this year. I renewed it three times. Three times, the upper limit. I eventually sent it down the return box, unwatched. Pathetic. Criminal. I just don’t know why I don’t get around to these things.
Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.
So, while recently walking through Oxford to meet an acquaintance from Twitter, I passed the Oxford Playhouse and spotted a poster for a production of King Lear, which I learned of from another acquaintance on Twitter, it so happened. The next day, I promptly ordered two tickets online. Over two decades’ worth of schooling – including graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, mind you – never put me in the theater seat. But apparently 140 characters could.
My wife and I had an argument over seat selection. I wanted to reserve two seats by the aisle, she, sensibly, by center stage. “I’m tired of everything we do revolving around you having to go to the bathroom,” she complained. “I just like the option. There’s comfort in proximity,” offering the best defense even George Constanza could surmise. Begrudgingly, I booked seats facing centerstage. Marriage requires compromise, see. And sacrifice, though not of my fluid consumption. I still downed two pints at a pub before heading to the theater.
One dresses up for the theater. A man wears a jacket in the least. And I hadn’t been to the theater in a long time. I wanted to look nice. I wanted a cultured evening out on the town with my wife. So, I decided to wear the suit I had tailored for my wedding. It’s a classic suit: navy blue, cut slim. Maybe a little too slim, as some post-nuptial weight stretched the waistband. But I sucked in my belly, shoved in my shirt, and adjusted my subsequently bunched-up underwear. I was looking good, feeling fresh – until I got caught in a sudden hailstorm on my way to pick up the tickets at will call. Oxford’s old cobblestone streets are charming until you try to run them in dress shoes and slacks that are riding up your ass. I felt like Lear out on the heath: older, less spry than in my youth, and confronting the elements, only to be humbled later by my discovery that I had far overdressed for this weeknight performance. Oxford is a college town after all. At least I would be disturbing no one if I had to empty my old-man bladder during the play; we occupied the only seats in the entire row. Naturally, I enjoyed a glass of wine at intermission.
I loved the production. It opens with Cordelia aiming a rifle right at the audience: bang. Provocative, but I still haven’t decided on what it means. She struck me as a sort of revolutionary fighter, in fact, when she reappears with the French invasion later in the play. Edmund the Bastard was quite the bastard. So were Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall. The Fool accompanied himself with a concertina, giving additional voice and volume to his humor. And Michael Pennington played the mad king brilliantly. The costuming evoked, for me at least, interwar England, an interesting juxtaposition for tragedy set in ancient Albion. This, too, has a meaning, though I’m still deliberating on it. The set design was sparse, a stark brick wall suggesting not royalty but hard times, actually. A wind machine mimicked the elements when Lear is roving the heath and raving out in the storm; the effect was a bit gimmicky. But I can’t pretend to be a theater critic. You’ve seen my record, for one thing. For another, I don’t any have other productions of King Lear to compare this one to.
If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second.
I did read King Lear in high school, though. For Mr. Cahill’s class, in fact. A few of my peers said it was their favorite play, that it was Shakespeare’s best. I hadn’t even read enough of the Bard to have an opinion. My classmate – the successful editor – often quoted a favorite line: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/ they kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38). I wanted to be serious and literary like them, so I agreed. It, too, I said, was my favorite play, though I never personally connected to Lear’s madness, as sublime as Lear’s descent into it is. I certainly didn’t understand a damned word of the Fool at the time (a lot of dick jokes, I now know). Like a well-trained but unimaginative literary analyst, I circled all the references to eyes and sight in the text, scrawling in the margins “seeing vs. blindness” and thinking myself a brave explorer setting the first foot in some new world.
I also tried to re-read the play before this performance. I only made it halfway through, but this was to my benefit. In the first half of the performance, I was delighted I could follow along with the actual lines. Shakespeare is hard enough to understand when you’re studying him in private with time, footnotes, and the internet at your disposal. In the second half, a lot of the lines went right over my head, as stuffed with Shakespeare as it’s been this year. But the meaning didn’t. If I connected with the language in the first half, I connected with its emotions in the second. Because theater centers, well, the drama.
I’ll pick it up in Part 2.