The trouble with happiness is that the prospect of it ending makes you sad.
– Oliver Burkeman: Can’t always get what you want? Don’t worry
After my most recent viewing of Doctor Faustus, on 11 June 2016, I drafted the following few paragraphs. That they never made it on to my blog (until now) is probably because – with just one precious, fragile visit left – I could not, at the time, reach any conclusion or closure….
Seven heavenly wins…
I had actually lost count of how many times I’d seen this production until I checked my diary… – only then to discover that this, my seventh, was also my penultimate. Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven, That time may cease and midnight never come!
After an absence of six weeks, desperately in need of my next fix of “the very definition of theatre [featuring] two actors at the very top of their joint game” – O, how this sight doth delight my soul! – how on earth (or in hell), I wondered, was I going to survive without it?
Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
It has spoken to me in a way that no other drama has ever quite managed. Therefore, again – Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair… – I am worried that “Only the darkness [will] remain… an unremitting nightmare way beyond hope: and which, to me, currently feels all too real.” I understand that I am not addicted to it… – not according to the true, scientific meaning of the word… – but I know that I will suffer from its withdrawal.
[That I bumped into Oliver Ryan, a few days later – and we talked like long-lost friends… – certainly eased my pain. But I shall miss him, Sandy, Nicholas Lumley, Jade Croot, and the rest of the gifted company, in a way I never thought possible…. That I will be away for the last night just compounds the grief. Theatre is so sodding ephemeral. (Even when captured for posterity on DVD, the experience can never be the same.) All that will remain are all those reviews – and my cherished, tightly-grasped memories. But not even those can provide the spark that relights the sheer magic of sitting on the front row, knowing myself to be in Wittenberg, tears streaming down my face in rapturous heartbreak.]
Mephistophilis But Faustus, in hell is all manner of delight.
Faustus O, might I see hell and return again safe, how happy were I then!
And machination ceases…
Similar thoughts emerged, yesterday, sat in a coffee shop in Malvern, grabbing an espresso and a bite to eat before revisiting Michael Pennington’s incomparable “inhabitation” of King Lear. Again, another uniformly stupendous company. Again, a production with direct access to my soul. But, after last night, all I can bring myself to write is that my “business of the world hath so an end”.
This is the last week of the run; and I have exhausted all my opportunities to see it again. (How I wish it were not so.) I cannot even make it to the company’s poetry reading – for Calais Action – on Thursday evening. (But please feel free to go on my behalf…!) Three times was never going to be enough….
All I can say, as I did at the very beginning of this report, was that this was a landmark portrayal; an actor at the very pinnacle of his (and everyone-else’s) very great game. That his genius encompassed all those around him; that his howls as he dragged Cordelia’s slumped body onto the stage haunted my dreams (and will for many a night); that his eyes twinkled, then dimmed, and twinkled once more, before finally fading to naught; that he made us not only see – but feel, taste – that mouse and toasted cheese, those parted curtains; that the roof of the Royal, for one moment, floated heavenwards as we called him back to the stage; that he was, for three hours, Lear – not an actor in increasingly-threadbare clothing – …all these things are sadly not enough to even begin to describe what we saw; experienced; heard; were immersed in….
However much my resultant sadness, it is, of course, tempered with great joy at having been fortunate enough to have witnessed such wonders. And my sorrow is nothing compared to Michael Pennington’s own grief at not being able to launch this tour at the RSC – his “lifelong stamping-ground” – because of apparent intransigence and jealousy. [As much as I love the building, and the many, many generous and inspiring folk that create daily miracles there, it seems that politics stalks even the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s labyrinthine corridors. Like the referendum result, last Friday – to which there were a few knowing nods in last night’s (again) gripping performance (including the most stunning, heartfelt, sincere rendition of those final lines…) – it seems that even people with intelligence can be immensely shortsighted in the self-awareness department when their own egos require (as they wrongly see it) protecting.]
I knew in my bones that my Lear wouldn’t make it to Stratford, and I don’t suppose Shakespeare will spin in his grave in 2016. However, the door that I found closed on Lear has finished my business with a company with whom I’ve been intimately associated under every previous regime since Peter Hall founded it in 1961.
– Michael Pennington: King Lear in Brooklyn
More gratitude, then – that I witnessed one of the very greatest Shakespearean actors of my lifetime strut the boards of the RST and the Swan (and, many moons ago, probably also in The Other Place – I fear I am not in my perfect mind…) – but heavily tainted with wrath, this time: that I will never see him in my adopted home town again.
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep! We’ll see ’em starved first.