KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 2: Winter 2015
Memoir: 747 words

To Play the King

by Pat Tompkins

London was my first big city. For someone raised on the Beatles, it was Top of the Pops. And I had a ticket to “King Lear.” Shakespeare in England—perfect for an English lit major.

I was a college student in a study-abroad program. Our focus in London was theater and 19th-century art and architecture. That winter’s energy crisis meant that the museums we trekked among in a steady drizzle were barely heated. Most of us soon had colds, but this didn’t dim our enthusiasm. We’d studied the play with our American professor/shepherd. Of the Shakespeare plays I was familiar with, “Lear” was my favorite.

Friday night, we took the tube across town, from our Earl’s Court boarding house to a local theater in Hampstead. Sucking cough drops and mopping noses, we filled several center rows in the balcony. The cast did not include any name actors; this was not a West End production, closer to Off-Off Broadway. But still, “Lear” in London. What a grand start, the first of 12 plays we would see in the next six weeks. Among our group were several students with experience acting in college productions. We were all opinionated, and the theater majors were especially vocal. But when the lights went down, we were quiet, ready to be awed.

The curtains rose on a modest set; the costumes indicated this would be a traditional presentation, not a modern updating to Stalin’s Soviet Union or some other novel setting. A roast beef production. Fine. All went well, at least for several minutes before King Lear and his daughters made their entrance.

Lear is old and usually performed as aging badly, but this Lear was fairly robust. No gray beard for him. In fact, nearly four decades later, I can recall his dark eyebrows, especially the left, which he arched vigorously. I have since seen various productions of “King Lear,” including one with a leaky roof, but this London Lear was unique. The King was having trouble remembering his lines and his footing.

“He’s drunk!” we whispered, shocked by this unprofessional behavior. But maybe the actor playing Lear thought he was being professional—the show must go on, and all that. He was offstage for the next few scenes; perhaps he’d sober up.

Perhaps not. He returned with a copy of the script unrolled and in hand. We looked at each other in disbelief. This was Shakespeare, one of his greatest plays. This was London, world capital of theater. This was amateur hour. Our Lear read from the page as needed and continued his fashion of emoting with his left eyebrow.

At intermission, our professor apologized. Half a dozen students left in disgust. We’d come to see a tragedy and we were getting one. I imagine that in Shakespeare’s day, the audience would have pelted the actor with rotten eggs. But most of us stayed, sharing a box of After Eight mints and watching the accident unfold.

Once we were resigned to the awfulness of the evening, we enjoyed ourselves. It wasn’t as though Lear were spoiling an otherwise adequate production. Our dark and stormy night included clumsy staging; the blinding of Gloucester was more inept than horrifying; the leap from a “hill,” a barrel-wide half sphere, generated giggles. But, with the script handy, Lear got through scene after scene, until the final moments of the play, Act Five, Scene Three. At this climax, the king realizes too late that his daughter Cordelia, the one he disinherited, was actually his only faithful daughter. Now she is dead. Our arch-brow’d actor carried her onstage in his arms. It should have been the most moving moment of the play. But instead of crying, we burst out laughing. Lear’s hands were full. Where was the script?

Fortunately for the actor, he had only a handful of lines left. We were still snickering a few minutes later when Lear died of a broken heart and his loyal servant Kent proclaimed, “The wonder is he hath endur’d so long.”

Indeed. That long evening proved an omen of our future with the Bard.

Weeks later, our group traveled to Stratford on Avon to attend a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Another king, another tragedy, of sorts. No, not “Macbeth.” We saw a play the RSC had not performed in 25 years: “King John.” It was soon evident why. As we learned, even Shakespeare could write a dud.

Site contains text, proprietary computer code,
and graphic images that are protected by:

⚡   Many thanks for taking time to report broken links to: KYSOWebmaster [at] gmail [dot] com   ⚡