The Boy celebrated his second birthday earlier this week. And today, Sunday, we were out celebrating with him on a picnic rug with friends & family in Dulwich Park. He spent the day collapsing onto Tupperware, smearing strawberries over his face, and stumbling like a weekend drunk through the rain. At one point he stood beneath a tree a little distance from us, put his hand in the air & bellowed, as if declaiming. His father’s son. Didn’t quite get around to feeding the ducks, which would have been the icing on the cake. He loves feeding the ducks: planted between his parents at the edge of the lake approximating a quack, then launching his bread at the water and missing. He’s obsessed with cows too. And Thomas the Tank Engine. Oh, and smacking his dad in the kisser.
On his actual birthday last week, at half five in the morning, with sunrise glowing behind the curtains, a little hand was battering me in the face, and a not-so-little voice was entreating me to sing happy birthday – or, to be precise, “arpi bada!” – for the fifteenth time in succession. He reared over me in bed like a monstrous blonde angel, yelling & pummelling, with one simple aim: to transform by sheer force of will the encrusted farting lump of sleep and hair in front of him into his essential, exclusive, vaguely Olympian Dadda. He succeeded (with a little help from his mother & a gigantic mug of coffee-flavoured caffeine), and before you could say: “Jesus, who IS that child??” I was upright and reading him one of the legion of Mr Men books that he’d spent a gleeful half hour unwrapping from spangly paper inches from my right ear. That morning, I recounted the tale of Mr Lazy
who, with splendid irony, is wrenched from his placid little life by a certain Mr Busy & Mr Bustle, two besuited tyrants whose job it is to introduce our hero to a new world of exertion and profound stress.
Two years ago, life was so much more straightforward. There was no-one punching me in the face at the crack of dawn demanding I perform (if you don’t count a few unfortunate liaisons in my twenties); there was no peculiar rivalry with someone two feet high for the affections of my wife (if you don’t count that dwarf in Munich); and there was no toddler-shaped drag-anchor of anxiety, excitement & pride that remorselessly propels a parent away from the dreary, daily shallows of me, myself & I. Fatherhood rocks and no mistake – but you don’t half have to extend your mental horizons. And become proficient at ducking a toddler’s right hook.
I now find myself making decisions not based on their general efficacy to myself and my own journey through the world, but on how they impact on the Boy. This is right and proper and surely a natural human instinct, as expressed in this simple equation:
(New thing arrives in cave, squawks, deafens tribe) + (sharp urge to leave cave with mates / bring back over shoulder carcass of wild animal / Calpol) = (thing quietens down, happy family, happy cave).
The Uggs, Christmas, 100,000 BC
However, I didn’t expect this principle to manifest quite so brazenly in my own 21st century version of the sum: I am ashamed to say that, in August 2013, literally in his first week of life, I was dragging the Boy and his poor confused mother round various streets in South London searching for property to buy – my almost unconscious, reflexive response to him being suddenly & ineluctably in the world. If I now contemplate being blown to pieces by a bomb on a bus by a lunatic, it’s no longer the momentary rending of flesh that keeps me awake at night but the Dadda shaped hole it would make in the Boy’s entire life. I now (occasionally) go to the gym because I fret about staying alive, rather than (occasionally) wondering if a paunch says something basically perjorative about me that can’t be alleviated by the standard-issue raised eyebrow and useful line in self-deprecation. In short, my centre of gravity has comprehensively shifted.
And what it has shifted to is one-part crazed child development to two-parts legacy. ISA accounts, wills, committing a minor civil infringement to get a name on some bollocks elite list for something or other. You know, the shit-blizzard of bureaucracy & subdued panic that is child-rearing in 21st century Britain.
Now, there seems to be a universal (often self-serving) narrative stalking the land looking for a fight, saying parenthood makes you a better person. I think that narrative is a well-meaning bully. Some of the most murderous tossers are patres familias.
Having a sprog does not de-fang us, but merely hides the fangs in a ridiculous gum-shield formed by the action of making coo-ing noises over a cot for hours at a time. The nashers are still there however, silently glinting in the night as we patrol our offspring’s potential like a predatory animal – where before children, we only patrolled our own. (Or indeed, for the slackers and permanently stoned amongst us, didn’t bother patrolling at all.) It’s a shorter journey than you might think from pretending to know the New Testament in order to get your pride & joy into a school with playing-fields & high expectations, to the abbatoir of Syria, say. And that journey always starts with the sweetest, most nurturing love a human being is capable of feeling. To protect and advance the object of that love though, and a whole set of infinitely less glorious impulses kick in: aquisitiveness, the relentless hunt for security, the gruelling striving for impregnable advantage. In the wrong place, in the wrong time, in the wrong hands, these impulses can lead to a bloodbath.
So what, I hear you ask, does this fist-in-mouth angst about modern child-rearing have to do with my current day-job? Well, this: it could reasonably be argued that one of Shakespeare’s great themes and preoccupations, worked out and expressed in play after play in different permutations and plots, is parenthood. What it is to be a son or daughter, what it is to be a mother or father. From Hamlet, King Lear & the Roman plays, through most of the Comedies, all of the Romances, and most urgently in the Histories, he is concerned with the obligations and restrictions attendant on both roles, even when they’re adoptive or metaphorical roles. Even when neither parenthood or offspring are present as concerns for the characters in question – as with the Macbeths – they’re absence becomes horribly relevant to the wider world. “He has no children!” cries the distraught Macduff on hearing of the slaughter of his own ‘pretty ones’ by the childless tyrant. (And as in Macbeth, it’s noticeable that in Shakespeare’s earlier study in tyranny, Richard III, children and their destruction become the obsession of the tyrant: a means of killing tomorrow, preserving the present regime in aspic, ultimately sterile, static & centred on one self-consumed individual.)
More than any of his other plays, parenthood lies at the very core of Shakespeare’s depiction of the Wars of the Roses. We have the central phantom relationship of Henry VI himself attempting to make sense of his role as King in the mighty space left by his dead father. Duke Humphrey is a surrogate father for the young king, out of whose shadow the King ineffectually tries to crawl. There is old and young Clifford, one who avenges the death of the other by butchering York’s youngest child, the little Earl of Rutland. Queen Margaret, she-wolf of France, patron-saint of tiger-mothers, becomes self-consciously bestial in the championing of her son. As York says: “Oh tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” This, in anguished response to Margaret’s taunting of York with a cloth drenched in the blood of his little boy, Rutland. And in one of the most gut-wrenching scenes of the three plays, the hapless King Henry watches as a nameless man mourns the son he has unwittingly slaughtered in battle, whilst another nameless combatant mourns the father he has killed.
Now, for sure, Shakespeare is describing in these plays what happens to a country when loyalty to God & King gives way to naked self-interest, one explanation for civil war that, allowing for different terminology & context, still sounds about right. But no-one here is thinking exclusively about themselves – they’re nearly always thinking about where and how their children (or family or clan) stand to benefit, either under the current regime or any prospective new one. The whole series of plays starts with the funeral of Henry V, the first and mightiest fallen father, with everyone – not least his son – desperately trying to preserve his legacy throughout the ensuing decades. The Duke of York, the great challenger for the throne, is progressively more distraught at the loss of the French territories because he sees them as his birthright to be handed on to his sons. These boys, schooled in war, have been raised on a grievance of wrongful deprivation of their birthright. And what York fights for all his life is eventually passed on – steeped in blood – to Edward, the eldest. So, crazed child development & legacy on an imperial scale.
Incidentally, during the first great battle scene in the second play, Edward IV, only Richard, the deformed dog of war, is prepared to fight to the death to defend his father in his hour of need. Indeed, in one of those wonderful light-bulb moments that often happen at this stage in rehearsal, Alex Hanson’s York and his malevolent warrior off-spring, Robbie Sheehan’s Richard, tenderly embrace as father and son, Richard having come to his father’s aid whilst his brothers have fled the field. Suddenly, we get a brief glimpse of a startlingly heroic Richard whose father’s influence & legacy will inform everything he does from now on right the way through to the bitter end at Bosworth. That’s a character insight into this most iconic of Shakespearean villains that you can only get when you do these plays together, and never when Richard III is presented as a stand-alone star-vehicle.
I got chatting about parenthood to the lovely Alex Gilbreath…
…during a morning tea-break earlier this week. I had been proudly brandishing photos of the Boy on my phone unwrapping his Mr Men books earlier that morning. (Parents of young children in an acting company tend to recognise one another early on in proceedings by a certain hollow gaze and tendency to occasionally lean against a wall with their eyes shut mid-conversation. Before suddenly regaining consciousness and pouncing on unwary passers-by to show off photographs on their iPhone.) And the conversation turned to how being a parent informed our acting in these three plays.
Alex plays Queen Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV & mother to the doomed princes in the Tower, and she talked about how being a mother herself was giving her scenes immense extra ballast in rehearsal. Representing the killing of a child on stage – or indeed the mother of a (soon-to-be) dead child – when you’re a parent yourself is a very, very different proposition from when you’re a childless twenty or thirty-something. A whole different ball-game. Alex says you become newly wired into the universe when you have a child, and to the extent that all your emotional wires become taut and tuned to the highest pitch, that’s damn right. I poked my head round the door to watch a rehearsal of the scene in Richard III where Elizabeth is informed that her precious boys are to be held in the tower, with their mother denied all access to them and with the threat of something ghastly waiting in the wings, unable to see or be with them, to hold, comfort or protect them when they’re afraid and alone, and on the point of death. In other words, a parent’s absolute worst nightmare. And, it’s actually bloody hard to watch. In a way that it wouldn’t have been two years ago. Back then I might have appreciated it as a supremely moving moment with great technical dexterity from a mightily gifted actor. But it wouldn’t have made me want to rock backwards and forwards nursing an emotion that can only be described as a cold, dark scream of the soul. I lasted five minutes, and then had to repair to the gents pretending I had something in my eye.
(It helps, of course, that she’s a bloody fine actor. A few of the company went to see her in The Invisible, Beccy Lenkiewisz’s hilarious & touching play which has just closed at the Bush, about victims of government removal of Legal Aid. Alex was wonderful as the harassed, conflicted, warmly wry solicitor at the heart of the drama.)
Of course, we may be parents, but we are all also children to parents, still with us or dearly departed. I guarantee that amongst the first audience every actor in this company ever had were their mum & dad, looking on proudly & slightly misty-eyed. Still with me, forty years later, clear and distinct as today, is my father’s gigantic smile beaming out from the middle of a packed 1970s school assembly hall, completely oblivious to the fact that his youngest son (King Herod in an ill-fitting spangly cloak made out of a tea-cloth) had clearly forgotten his lines. Our parents are our most important audience – and in a way, we never stop performing for them.
So I leave you with a favourite passage of childhood memory and reverie from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway:
For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said:
“This is what I have made of it! This!”