Happy Shakespeare’s birthday, everybody!
A week and a half ago, I treated myself to a performance of King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring Antony Sher and playing here at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Unbeknownst to me, the one Thursday night I had available to go see the show turned out to be their opening night. Being the opening night, the audience was full of people connected with the company in general, and their ongoing relationship with BAM in particular. That wound up including an actor friend of mine who had served as a local supernumerary in their production of Julius Caesar a few years’ back (a local actor hired as an extra, to put it in layman’s terms). He had been invited back for their gala opening night celebration after the show, there in the Harvey Theater lobby, and he assumed that I was there for the gala opening as well, and he insisted I come along with him.
And so, I was a bad boy; I crashed the RSC’s opening night party.
I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, nodding my hellos and congratulations and speaking only when spoken to. I did, however, notice Byron Mondahl, the actor who played Oswald in the production, standing apart, off to the side. I’d played that part myself, back in 2002 at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, and knew the play well enough to appreciate all the details of his performance. So I went up and congratulated him.
And the poor guy practically wept in my arms.
Not right away, of course. We talked for a while about the demands of the role – few if any characters receive as much physical abuse, in terms of number of scenes, as Oswald does. Lear beats him up, Kent (repeatedly) beats him up, Edgar (fatally) beats him up. Whenever the action of the play threatens to become too dark too quickly, Shakespeare lightens things up by having somebody beat up Oswald. And the verbal abuse he receives includes my single favorite Shakespearean insult: “Thou whoreson zed! Thou unnecessary letter!” It’s as if people spend so much time cursing this character that they literally run out of insults, and must resort to throwing letters of the alphabet at him. (Sadly, in my production, the actor playing Kent could never remember this line, and would always call me an ‘unnecessary whoreson,’ which doesn’t make any damn sense. Not that I’m bitter about it or anything…)
Anyway, we talked about the role for a while, and then we talked about his experience playing it, and it was here where things became emotional. Like Antony Sher, he was born in South Africa, and he was therefore performing opposite a childhood hero. Sher’s famous actor’s diary Year of the King wasn’t just an inspiring read for him, it was literally one of his textbooks. And now here he was, following in the master’s footsteps, performing with the RSC, touring the world, living out every childhood fantasy of what a life on the stage must be like – and giving his all on stage, night after night, in the process. And yet, he was certain that he was doing so in a role and a performance that nobody, other than myself, would ever notice.
And it turned out he was correct. The New York Times’ review didn’t mention him. Time Out New York didn’t mention him. Even Sara Holdren’s typically comprehensive review in New York didn’t mention him. It’s in the nature of this particular supporting role; Oswald is a parasite, an opportunist looking to profit from the chaos around him, and that chaos is what the audience is busy paying attention to. It’s created by major characters with Famous Soliloquies like Lear and Edmund, while Oswald hovers on the margins. His arc provides crucial details to show what’s happening to the larger society as Lear declines – Shakespeare knew what he was doing – but those details are small enough to miss if you’re not looking for them.
To give you an example of what I mean – and to illustrate just how smart and strong Mondahl's performance is – consider the scene with Oswald and Regan, where Regan attempts to bribe Oswald into assassinating Gloucester for her. In Gregory Doran’s staging, Oswald is present and observing earlier when Goneril seduces Edmund into plotting with her against her husband Albany. Nia Gwynne’s Goneril takes this moment to kiss Edmund with vast amounts of repressed passion, even fury, a lifetime of frustrations finally released. So when Regan makes her offer, Oswald, thinking this is how such exchanges are handed, leans in ever so slightly in this staging for the kiss he wrongly thinks is coming. And Mondahl then has a moment as he hangs there, almost (but not quite) registering how pathetic his desires are in the face of the apocalyptic times he’s living in. It’s exactly the grace note the moment needs, and Mondahl’s performance is filled with them. But most people are just listening for the main melody.
Like I said, I know how he feels. The bulk of the roles I’ve played have been these kind of supporting roles which are crucial to the overall effect of the play, but tend not to receive precious column space when it’s time to write the print review. Shakespeare has a lot of these roles, a nice fraction of which I’ve played. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leap to mind (and I’ve played one of them too – or perhaps the other). Despite Tom Stoppard giving them a play of their own, plenty of productions omit them entirely, despite everything they reveal about the court where Hamlet’s trapped.
It’s always been this way. The state of affairs has even been memorialized in verse by T.S. Eliot –
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Well, just because we’re J. Alfred Prufrock doesn’t mean we can’t be appreciated – it takes skill to perform that character too. We all take up the same space in the dressing room, we all have to sign the same call sheet. And so I congratulated the Mondahl again, and found myself giving him a hug, as overwhelmed by emotion as he was.
Apparently, crashing the RSC was my good deed for the day.