King Lear + Rabbit Holes + Today’s Birthday: Thomas Geoffrey Wilkinson

I spent most of a chilly Sunday diving into an increasingly deeper series of rabbit holes. A theater friend and I were talking about seeing plays in London, and I mentioned that the greatest performance I’d ever seen was a production of King Lear. Interested, my friend asked if I recalled who had directed, who played Lear, which theater I saw it at,

I told him it might have been the Royal Shakespeare Company, maybe in the Barbican Theater? And then I completely blanked on who was in the cast. It was at least twenty years ago, after all. I realized how fuzzy my memories were.

from my edition of A.L. Rowse’s The Annotated Shakespeare

Those memories wouldn’t stop teasing me, so a couple days later I dove down the Internet rabbit hole to see what I could retrieve….

“My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious. Come,
your hovel.
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That’s sorry yet for thee.” – King Lear (Act III, Scene ii)

I began with the Royal Shakespeare Company website and none of the actors from their King Lear productions in the early 90s looked at all familiar from the show I’d seen with my sister, nor did the staging… where to look next?

An illustration of King Lear in the old book Shakespeare, by N. Kozhevnikov, 1894, Moscow
King Lear with his daughter Cordelia

The only detail I remembered clearly is that not long after I was in London a film about the Troubles came out, it had a wild plot, I’ve certainly never forgotten that plot, and I’d recognized the actor who’d played Edmund, who (in my opinion) had been the weakest actor in the King Lear cast. But I couldn’t recall the name of the film, so I googled films released in the 1990s about the Troubles in Ireland and there it was, The Crying Game, of course, and I clicked on the link to the movie’s website and tracked down the name of the actor again, then googled him for playing in King Lear, and leapfrogging across websites I finally landed on the Royal Court Theater, and the English Stage Company, and their 1993 King Lear. Not at all the RSC or the Barbican, but with a jolt I recognized several names from the cast, male actors who have gone on to have illustrious acting careers, Tom Wilkinson as King Lear, I remember being electrified by the anguished resonance of Lear’s speeches on the heath and how I’d believed every word he spoke. And of all people portraying The Fool it was Andy Serkis, now wildly successful and better known to audiences as Gollum. As The Fool his character was a shaved head cross-dresser in heels, the play was staged with Lear as a retiring general/leader, in Eastern Europe maybe, and at the end The Fool was dead, hanging in the air from the end of a noose for an entire scene, it was horrifying, my sister and I talked a lot after the show about how uncomfortable it must have been for the actor playing The Fool to remain motionless for so long. The next day I traveled down yet another rabbit hole for the other members in the cast, and discovered Edgar had been played by none less than a young Ian Glen –  yes, him – Ser Jorah Mormont of Game of Thrones.

After these revelations I had long phone calls with both my sister and my best friend about how incredible and wonderful, magical, mind-bendingly great those performances were, and my God it wasn’t twenty years ago, it was thirty years ago,

and I am quite sure I’ll never see a production to match that one ever again, ever, and I shall die a lucky and changed human being, a better person for having watched and listened to Tom Wilkinson, Andy Serkis, and Ian Glen in what is possibly the greatest play ever written by the greatest writer who ever lived.

This post is especially dedicated to Thomas Geoffrey Wilkinson, born on this day 5 February 1948 in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, England. Mr. Wilkinson has been nominated twice for the Academy Award and has won the British Academy Film Award, Primetime Emmy Award, and a Golden Globe. But for me he is forever King Lear, baying on the heath. -Jadi

NOTES: I even tracked down some photos! Andy Sirkis as The Fool: www.photostage.co.uk, King Lear, The Fool, Edmund and Kent: www.photostage.co.uk ©Jadi Campbell 2022. Image of Lear and Cordelia courtesy of Dreamstime.

My books are Broken In: A Novel in Stories, Tsunami Cowboys, Grounded, and The Trail Back Out

Tsunami Cowboys was longlisted for the 2019 ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Award. The Trail Back Out was honored as 2021 IAN Book of the Year Award Short Story Collection Finalist for the Independent Author Network, and American Book Fest 2020 Best Book Award Finalist: Fiction Anthologies. The title story The Trail Back Out was longlisted for the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Award. Broken In: A Novel in Stories was a semifinalist for the international 2020 Hawk Mountain Short Story Collection Award from Hidden River Arts, and named a Finalist for Greece’s international 2021 Eyelands Book of the Year Award (Short Stories).

Click here for my author page to learn more about me and purchase my books.

The Music of the Heavenly Spheres

Image

Schwedagon Pagoda, Rangon

In 2009 we spent 4 weeks in Burma, the maximum time permitted on a visa. For years we’d debated back and forth about whether to go. Does one travel to a repressive regime? Just the year before, monks were shot for demonstrating peacefully in the streets. In the end we decided to go and bear witness. A country closed tight and ruled with iron fists, the poverty and corruption are unbelievable… as are the loving kindness of the Burmese and the beauty and magic of their land. I have been pondering what to post about our trip to Burma and how to write it, because Burma is unlike anyplace on earth.

But these are only words.

Let me begin again, this time with a story:

Sacred Pali script

On our very last day in-country, in Yangon we stopped at a café on a busy street with outdoor tables. All of the tables were filled with other tourists. The locals did not have the money for anything so extravagant. A beer, a pineapple juice, and hot green tea arrived; I wrote out some last post cards. Hovering in the street were the post card seller, a hawker for newspapers (used and days old), and a skinny boy with an endless “Hello? hello! Hello? hello!” When a tourist looked his way he said “Eat,” and mimed someone putting food in his mouth. He hovered looking over the wall dividing the café from the street, persistent with hunger.

I became aware of an ethereal music swimming its way up from the background of my consciousness. I thought someone down the street a ways with access to a power generator was playing a recording of a beautiful, haunting voice. Then the sound came nearer, and it was a young Burmese person. At first I thought it was a man slowly making his way down the road. It was a woman: she had her hair up under a cap and thanaka paste on her cheeks to protect her skin from the sun.

A  voice from the Heavenly Spheres

A voice from the Heavenly Spheres

She halted and stood very still as she sang, or chanted verses, or recited a Buddhist prayer. It wasn’t clear if she was singing or speaking and didn’t matter. The purity of that voice pierced all barriers and reached all hearts. Every so often the little metal cymbals in her fingers went ching! in a perfect counterpoint.

When she stopped, the entire café burst into spontaneous applause. People kept getting out of their seats to put bills in the can on a string around her neck. I checked my wallet. I knew my last offering in Burma was going to this young woman with the voice that sang with the music of the spheres. This music usually can’t be heard. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras of Samos believed the movement of planets (heavenly spheres) creates ethereal and earthly harmonies; Shakespeare wrote often about how these harmonies affect events. All I know for sure is that on that afternoon, in a dusty street in Burma, a young woman was channeling that music for us to hear.

I walked out with a 1,000 kyat note, stepped around the restaurant’s retaining wall to donate – and saw my singer had just one leg. She was propping herself up with a rough plank of wood.

This is my final image of the country sometimes called Myanmar. This is my avatar for Burma: a transcendent voice beyond language, standing with only one leg, singing gloriously, regardless.

I will post more about Burma in the coming months.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)