“Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.”
― William Shakespeare, Richard II
I saw an old friend tonight.
After some little trouble, I obtained a ticket to tonight's performance of Richard II (and, though it cost the earth, I do rejoice that it was quite the best seat in the theater, smack in the middle of the stalls and much more comfortable than standing in the back). After some more little trouble, I returned to the theater in the nick of time . . . thank heaven for Barclay's bicycles, or I'd never have made those last few blocks at anything like the necessary speed.
King Richard was being played by David Tennant. I knew this, of course; it was the main reason I tried for these tickets this morning, rather than Tom Hiddleston's Coriolanus. David Tennant is a Doctor. He is . . . well, famous and all that rot, et cetera, et cetera . . . but when he appeared on stage, I felt as though I'd come to see a show featuring a second cousin or old family friend.
He is an old family friend, you see. He used to come into my parents' living room quite often of a Sunday evening to tell us all stories. In my bewildering, semi-autistic world where names and faces mix together like sequences of random numbers, I know his face, and voice, and name, and step, with a reliable and comforting assurance.
And yet he was also Richard, King of England, so assured of his place in the universe that he never seriously entertained such far-fetched ideas as the rebellion of his nobles. And sometimes in his jumping stride, or some little bit of self-interruption, or in some action meant to wrong-foot and tease everyone around him, he echoed another friend I once had . . . with the same face and much, much shorter hair. (Seriously, that was a magnificent wig. And I only knew it was a wig because I know that he had short hair the last time I saw him, and that human hair doesn't grow that fast.) But this person was different . . . thrown off by the universe, too bewildered to be angry, too observant to be insane, grasping futilely at the empty air where all that love used to be. His death broke my heart. And Henry, now king of England with all the same forms of legitimacy so cherished by his unfortunate predecessor, finishes the play by looking up at his newly-won throne . . . and there stands Richard, barefoot and bareheaded, clad all in loose white, one hand on the arm of the poor rickety chair. This is no ghost of King Hamlet, howling for revenge, nor a forgiving angel. Just Richard, that once was king, solemnly haunting the throne on which Henry must sit for the rest of his days.
And then the lights went down, and came back up, and down the stairs to the floor of the stage sprang my friend David, nightgown billowing around him, smiling the heady smile of one who's just successfully completed three hours of Shakespeare without flubbing a line or stepping on any pieces of broken mirror and is riding that triumphant high even as exhaustion starts to make the edges of his vision go all blurry. I know that feeling, and smile and sympathize as I clap until my palms ache and he and all his teammates make their bows.
There is a crowd at the stage door, waiting with cameras and pens at the ready. I think about joining them, but decide not to. My friend David is probably tired, and wants to go celebrate with the rest of the cast or go home and brush his teeth and go to bed. And anyway, standing in the middle of a mob in the pouring rain is not a good place to catch up with an old friend. So I head for home, confident that when he's rested up from this long and grueling run (only one more day . . . hang in there!), he'll be back in my parents' living room to tell me another story.