Fool’s gold: Danny Lee Wynter on Lear’s Fool

Danny Lee Wynter shares his experiences of making his stage debut as the Fool in King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe, from researching and understanding the role, to dealing with stage fright, storms and sausage rolls

I once had a conversation with a fellow actor who simply couldn’t get his head around the idea of going on stage every night and saying the same lines over and over again. His passport said he was an actor, and, indeed, he was a huge fan of acting in general, but he was unable to entertain the idea of repetition in his own career.

The words ‘theatre’ and ‘run’ became synonymous with the kind of pain and suffering usually reserved for a major tooth extraction. Live performance prompted in him “the dread of stale boredom”.

Needless to say, at the height of a distinguished and glittering career, he chose to side step a life on the boards entirely.

My response to his reluctance to participate in the very thing he loved and admired brought to mind a blistering scene towards the end of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when Martha rails against her husband’s lack of career aspirations. “Georgie-boy didn’t have the stuff,” she slurs. “He didn’t have it in him… he was a flop! A great big, fat, flop!” In the simplest terms, that’s how I saw this actor.

Terrified of failure and paralysed by fear, to the point where he only endeavoured to do what was safe, what was comfortable – nothing more, nothing less. And as Judi Dench once said, if you’re looking for comfort, steer well clear of the stage. This is something I learnt first hand by taking on my first stage play this summer by appearing in King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe. David Calder was my King and I his Fool.

It would be true to say that most actors I know seem to go through an initial period, once they’ve been offered a part, of thinking of all of the other actors who exist who might do it better. It shames me to say that I am one of those actors. With Lear, I already had knowledge, prior to walking into the rehearsal room, that many of the great and the good of the British theatre (John Hurt, Jack MacGowran, Michael Bryant and Antony Sher) had once given their own interpretations of the role at some point in their career.

My initial response was that, at the age of 25, what may I have to bring to this hugely complex character that these revered performers, with all of their wisdom and experience of life and the theatre, haven’t already? I’d never been in a professional play, I’d never done Shakespeare and suddenly I was going to have a stab at what is widely regarded as the most impossible of Shakespeare’s fools. I was having a drink with a friend of mine a couple of days before rehearsals began and he happened to ask me what I thought I was going to do with the role. I shrugged: “Try to remember the lines and not get in the King’s way, I guess.”

Over the years I’d witnessed three productions of the play. The first by Jonathan Kent at the Almeida with Oliver Ford Davis in the title role, in which I have a vivid memory of the storm scene being so epic and realistic that it felt like the walls of the theatre were struggling to contain it.

Another by Bill Alexander, starring Corin Redgrave for the RSC. And, perhaps most recently, another RSC production, this time by Trevor Nunn with Ian McKellen, in which William Gaunt gave a masterclass in understated acting as Gloucester.

All three of these productions had their different strengths and weaknesses, but the thing for me, which I never fully made a connection with after sitting through all of these productions, was why the Fool disappeared halfway through the play, never to be seen again.

It is clear that the character’s function in the play has come to an end as soon as Lear encounters Poor Tom in the hovel, but as an audience member, I was never able to grasp the character’s immediate destiny after his final line, “And I’ll go to bed at noon”.

Some productions have gone as far as visually punctuating what might happen to the Fool after those scenes in the hovel, but for me, they always seemed to deny the audience the opportunity of using their imagin≠ation. When I read the play for the first time as a 16-year-old student, I assumed the Fool would have remained alone on the heath, physically fragile and teetering on the verge of death, before finally being hunted down and eventually killed by Lear’s daughters.

I’d played this version out in my head, but I’d never actually seen it, so when Dominic Dromgoole offered me the role, one of the things which attracted me to doing it was not only where the character may have come from, but also where he was going.

Those scenes out on the heath, apart from being extremely difficult for an actor to play, can fill you with so much physical liberation that you can’t help but end up discovering all sorts of things which suddenly make sense of the story, beyond your initial comprehension of it.

It was purely by default that when I was left alone on the ground, staring up at the night sky, as Kent and Gloucester lead the King to safety, that I clutched hold of Poor Tom’s abandoned blanket and ran off frantically in the opposite direction to them. I found it quite potent to imagine that whilst Edgar had become Poor Tom out of necessity in order to survive, the Fool, cast aside and redundant, might now have reluctantly become a Bedlam Beggar himself. The reversal of roles fascinated me.

Another factor which compelled me to take on the part was that I, like many others, found the casting unexpected. We’re so used to seeing the Fool played by a senior actor, often someone nearing the end of his career, that we rarely acknowledge the fact that there’s nothing in the text to suggest he isn’t younger. The character is so entirely prescient throughout the action of the play that for many, this is near enough always translated through the age of the actor who plays him. It is thought with age comes wisdom, but what if the Fool was played as a boy? A kind of surrogate son who seeks to fit the void for Lear’s love of Cordelia.

In spite of seeing various incarnations of the character on stage, I have to admit I’d never paid a great deal of attention to the Fool. I’d always seen him as a presence, never as a full-blooded person. My own personal affili≠ation with the play had always been the family. When you watch a play or a film, you see what you look for and in Lear, the theme of family is always what I saw. As a teenager I thought that the whole of Shakespeare’s King Lear could be summed up in two short sentences, courtesy of Philip Larkin – “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do”. The writer Howard Brenton once summarised Lear’s plot as being about a man who has a terrible family row and then slams out of the house into the rain on Clapham Common. He shouts at the rain for a bit, and then thinks: ”What am I going to do now?” It’s only when I returned to the play, prior to rehearsals commencing and talking to Dominic, that it became apparent to me that Shakespeare’s play is about so much more, not just family, but our own different versions of family and the different places in which we seek it.

How had this person (the Fool), who is so unfalteringly loyal to Lear, come to serve him? And why have these two men become so utterly dependent upon one another? Shakespeare gives you all of these wonderful clues in the text about the origins of the character.

Reading it aloud as a company, I began to see that everything you need as an actor to play it is already there.

For example, there’s a scene in which the Fool appears and speaks to Lear and the Court – for what, on some nights, felt like an eternity – and then he suddenly stops and says nothing for a good ten minutes, until he decides to start up again. Taking heed of this can indicate to the actor more about the character and his temperament than anything you could cleverly invent or intellectually arrive at.

Something which intrigued me during the run of the play was its questioning of nature, both our effect on it and its effect on us. I had failed to see the wider relevance of it, even during the rehearsal period. Going back to the text one night, after a preview performance, I quickly noted that nearly all of the characters in the play, at some point or another, call upon nature to help them in their journey.

When Edmund, one of the most progressive characters in the play, plots against his father and brother, he addresses the sun, the moon and the stars.

It is interesting to think that at the time the play was written (around 1606), the audiences would have been sceptical to believe in anything other than the Protestant church, yet here in Edmund, Shakespeare gives us a man who sees himself above religion. Far from being the villain so often portrayed, Shakespeare is offering us a revolutionary.

From the moment I knew I was going to play the part, I found myself day≠dreaming on a regular basis about a scene in The Dresser, where Albert Finney as Sir tells Lockwood West, who is reluctantly stepping in that night to play the part of Fool, “The boom lights downstage are for me and me only, you must find what light you can!”.

I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, thinking I had to be on the Globe stage at that precise moment in time and that I’d missed the half.

Or worst still, I’d have a recurring nightmare where I was stood in the middle of the Great Wooden O, before a sea of groundlings, about to speak and nothing would come out. No one tells you at drama school how to deal with the effects of fear as an actor. In the theatre, especially, it is the great unsaid. If anyone gets a whiff of it, you’re auto≠matically deemed as not being fit for the job, which, of course, is nonsense.

Many performers just need to find a manageable way of coping with it. Ian Holm writes quite eloquently about his battles with nerves, but I’ve rarely heard other actors stare this particular evil in the face and express how it can manifest. I myself can be demanding of my director in the rehearsal process – I don’t mean to be, I just am. As an actor, the very thought you could overlook or misinterpret the story being told can often leave you feeling deeply unhappy and on edge. Dominic had the patience and time to allow me to slowly unfold my performance during the rehearsal process, until I felt I completely understood and owned every single word I was saying.

Cut to three months later. We’re halfway through the opening scene of King Lear. Calder is my King and I his Fool. The “lunatic King” is on the war path. His youngest born, the virtuous Cordelia, has just ruined all hopes he had of retiring from the throne gracefully. His friend, the noble Kent, has been banished for sticking his nose in where it is not wanted and the spineless Burgundy has suddenly got cold feet about marrying a girl whose purse is now empty.

Tensions are running high. As the King rages against Cordelia, “Better thou had’st not been born than not to have pleased me better!” the court falls into astonished silence. Out of nowhere a tiny little voice can be heard downstage. We carry on but it gets louder. From the corner of my eye I spy a woman with a moustache standing at the edge of the stage, eating a sausage roll. She turns to her companion and asks her where she recognises the King from. “He was in Poirot?”. “No,” says the other woman. “It’s Morse.”

“I don’t know,” says the woman eating the sausage roll. “But one of ‘em’s dead.”

I quickly began to realise during my stint at the Globe that very often it’s like the audience are up there with you. Often it alludes them that we can hear them just as much as they can hear us. Noise doesn’t affect some actors, but others are more sensitive to it and it can completely ruin everything the actor has meticulously been building up to.

It’s probably quite apt that for a play which speaks with such immense clarity about nature, that nature itself was often the very thing which would attempt to sabotage us playing outside in the open air.

One night, amid a torrential rain storm, I sang the Fool’s lines: “He that hath and a little tiny wit with a hey ho the wind and the rain”, to a house full of laughter. I’d often watch Trystan Gravelle, giving his brilliant Edgar, fall arse over tit as he launched into verse. Probably the most instinctive actor in the company, he would find himself acting upon an impulse, only to end up sliding across the Globe’s wooden floor and nursing a sore backside in the wings.

The indecisiveness of the elements on the South Bank always prove to be the true test of the audience’s concentration and willingness to submit to the story being told.

When they get it, they let you, the performer, know, and when they don’t get it, they also let you know.

A friend of mine, who is an actor, came to see the play and said to me afterwards that he wasn’t sure he’d want to perform on the Globe stage because it was so completely exposing. I have to say that’s the very thing which attracted me to it.

I remember watching the great Mark Rylance there as a kid and thinking to myself, as he played with the crowds, that as a performer in that space, you’re never off the hook. You get back tenfold what you put out. It always delights me, in a day and age of channel surfing with the TV remote and artistic directors who specifically commission plays in our theatres that last no longer than an hour and a half, that audiences who attend classical theatre can defy what is expected of them and still be standing by the end of the night.

All too often, we underestimate the role of the audience. We take our seats in the darkness and are subliminally told how to receive what we receive. We see it again and again in all of our theatres across the capital.

When I was tearing tickets at the Royal Court, I was once asked by a lady and her husband, who were watching a Roy Williams play, if I could ask the youth group, who were watching the play in the row in front of them, to stop shouting out solutions when the characters asked rhetorical questions. I thought it was one of the most ghastly manifestations of theatre policing that I’ve ever encountered. The Globe celebrates the audience and long may it continue to do so.

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