King Lear + Rabbit Holes + Today’s Birthday: Thomas Geoffrey Wilkinson

I spent most of a chilly Sunday diving into an increasingly deeper series of rabbit holes. A theater friend and I were talking about seeing plays in London, and I mentioned that the greatest performance I’d ever seen was a production of King Lear. Interested, my friend asked if I recalled who had directed, who played Lear, which theater I saw it at,

I told him it might have been the Royal Shakespeare Company, maybe in the Barbican Theater? And then I completely blanked on who was in the cast. It was at least twenty years ago, after all. I realized how fuzzy my memories were.

from my edition of A.L. Rowse’s The Annotated Shakespeare

Those memories wouldn’t stop teasing me, so a couple days later I dove down the Internet rabbit hole to see what I could retrieve….

“My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious. Come,
your hovel.
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That’s sorry yet for thee.” – King Lear (Act III, Scene ii)

I began with the Royal Shakespeare Company website and none of the actors from their King Lear productions in the early 90s looked at all familiar from the show I’d seen with my sister, nor did the staging… where to look next?

An illustration of King Lear in the old book Shakespeare, by N. Kozhevnikov, 1894, Moscow
King Lear with his daughter Cordelia

The only detail I remembered clearly is that not long after I was in London a film about the Troubles came out, it had a wild plot, I’ve certainly never forgotten that plot, and I’d recognized the actor who’d played Edmund, who (in my opinion) had been the weakest actor in the King Lear cast. But I couldn’t recall the name of the film, so I googled films released in the 1990s about the Troubles in Ireland and there it was, The Crying Game, of course, and I clicked on the link to the movie’s website and tracked down the name of the actor again, then googled him for playing in King Lear, and leapfrogging across websites I finally landed on the Royal Court Theater, and the English Stage Company, and their 1993 King Lear. Not at all the RSC or the Barbican, but with a jolt I recognized several names from the cast, male actors who have gone on to have illustrious acting careers, Tom Wilkinson as King Lear, I remember being electrified by the anguished resonance of Lear’s speeches on the heath and how I’d believed every word he spoke. And of all people portraying The Fool it was Andy Serkis, now wildly successful and better known to audiences as Gollum. As The Fool his character was a shaved head cross-dresser in heels, the play was staged with Lear as a retiring general/leader, in Eastern Europe maybe, and at the end The Fool was dead, hanging in the air from the end of a noose for an entire scene, it was horrifying, my sister and I talked a lot after the show about how uncomfortable it must have been for the actor playing The Fool to remain motionless for so long. The next day I traveled down yet another rabbit hole for the other members in the cast, and discovered Edgar had been played by none less than a young Ian Glen –  yes, him – Ser Jorah Mormont of Game of Thrones.

After these revelations I had long phone calls with both my sister and my best friend about how incredible and wonderful, magical, mind-bendingly great those performances were, and my God it wasn’t twenty years ago, it was thirty years ago,

and I am quite sure I’ll never see a production to match that one ever again, ever, and I shall die a lucky and changed human being, a better person for having watched and listened to Tom Wilkinson, Andy Serkis, and Ian Glen in what is possibly the greatest play ever written by the greatest writer who ever lived.

This post is especially dedicated to Thomas Geoffrey Wilkinson, born on this day 5 February 1948 in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, England. Mr. Wilkinson has been nominated twice for the Academy Award and has won the British Academy Film Award, Primetime Emmy Award, and a Golden Globe. But for me he is forever King Lear, baying on the heath. -Jadi

NOTES: I even tracked down some photos! Andy Sirkis as The Fool:, King Lear, The Fool, Edmund and Kent: ©Jadi Campbell 2022. Image of Lear and Cordelia courtesy of Dreamstime.

My books are Broken In: A Novel in Stories, Tsunami Cowboys, The Trail Back Out and Grounded.

Broken In: A Novel in Stories was  semifinalist for the international 2020 Hawk Mountain Short Story Collection Award and Finalist for Greece’s 2021 Eyelands Book of the Year Award (Short Stories). Tsunami Cowboys was longlisted for the 2019 ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Award. The Trail Back Out was American Book Fest 2020 Best Book Award Finalist: Fiction Anthologies, Runner-Up for the 2021 Top Shelf Award, 2021 IAN Book of the Year Award Short Story Collection Finalist, and awarded a 2021 Wishing Shelf Red Ribbon. The title story The Trail Back Out was longlisted for the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Award.

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8 thoughts on “King Lear + Rabbit Holes + Today’s Birthday: Thomas Geoffrey Wilkinson”

  1. What an amazing experience. And how fabulous the internet is that you could piece it all together and relive that performance! The one play that stands out in my memory is an 8.5 (!) hour (with a dinner break after 4 hrs) production of Nicholas Nickelby, by, yes, the RSC, in London in 1980 I think it twas.

  2. You had a lot of research work but in the end it was worth it when it comes to a work of that magnitude like King Lear. The time comes when the memories of so many years ago fade away. I loved reading you Jadi. Good weekend to you.

  3. So cool! I love when the rabbit holes kind of connect, or produce rabbits as it were. We saw a slew of great shows in London several years back ourselves. But thirty years ago! That’s a good long haul. Lear is used in a newish series on Netflix called Station Eleven, and I read the book the TV series was based on, written 8 years ago by a then-new author in Canada. It’s cool seeing how she was trying to surface some ideas in the book that got kind of overhauled in the TV series. One idea is that Shakespeare was “defined by the era he was in,” and part of that was plagues. Not sure I can connect those holes quite, but thought I’d share for what it’s worth.

    1. I’ll look for Station Eleven for sure, thanks for the tip! One part of Shakespeare’s genius is how he and the world he wrote from remain current. I recently read In Search of Shakespeare by Michael Wood and he talks about how Shakespeare may have secretly been Catholic – It’s a terrific read and makes Shakespeare’s time come alive. I spent hours down the rabbit holes that led me eventually to Wilkinson, Serkis and Glen…. Following The Bard always leads to somewhere fascinating.

      1. Hi Jadi, I think Station Eleven is/was popular here in the States recently (for obvious kind of post-apocalyptic due to pandemic theme which seems we have a morbid interest in) but I would not personally recommend it. In part because they fucked with Shakespeare! And you don’t do that! They started the story with a Lear story in a story but then jumped over to Hamlet and it just pissed me off. But yes to the current thing. Michael Wood book sounds interesting, and then of course the theory he was a woman writer too. One who was more worldly than the real Shakespeare we know about. I did visit his childhood home in Stratford, and we stayed in a flat right near it.

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