After my father died two years ago, I immersed myself and my artistic team-mates in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The play is the theater’s Kilmanjaro: it has to be played several times before one can even begin to understand the terrain. When the show closed, there was much more to be done with the material – and with processing my father’s death. I adapted the play into a two-person version with the aim of exploring end-of-life issues more directly.
King Fool runs 90 minutes without a break, during which time an aged man of uncertain sanity has wandered away from his caregiver daughter. She finds him, tries to take him home, but this is impossible: he is close to the end. The play can be seen as the last moment of his life, in which everything flashes before his eyes one last time, as in a dream, or in real time. Either way, they go through the old raucous hurts one more time, fighting, cursing, scheming, giving in, weeping and laughing. She feeds him gruel and water, he takes a drink from a flask when she isn’t looking, she calms him with morphine, he soils himself, she entertains him, and so it goes until he lets go at last.
The two characters are named Lear and Cordelia, and the words they exchange are all taken from Shakespeare’s play, but the scenes are refracted, to reflect his disjointed state, and rearranged to focus on the domestic aspect of their relationship.
Every one of us will die, and we will probably witness the deaths of loved ones. We lose things; we lose friends, opportunities and memories, all our lives. How we approach the ultimate loss can make the difference between fear and acceptance – and possibly, teach us something mysterious and deeply satisfying.
King Fool is the company’s flagship project.
Ava Roy, artistic director of We Players, San Francisco, and I performed King Fool to West Coast audiences, and tested a new way of presenting the theatrical experience. After each performance, someone whose occupation it is to attend to the dying, as a spiritual adviser, hospice worker, Alzheimer’s specialist or researcher, spoke of their response to the play and of their work with the dying and their families, and opened the conversation up to audience members, who talked about their own experiences, struggles and questions. In this way, the audience supplied the “second act” of the play, supplying the kind of engagement that may have sprung up naturally in earlier theaters, all the way back to campfires in primitive communities.
Subsequent projects will maintain this format, or create educational programs based upon it. We will bring small plays with huge, common themes to communities, not necessarily in theater buildings. We will honor the great questions more than the right answers and we will do our best to listen to what people have to teach us.