17 | MICHELLE TERRY'S THOUGHT OF THE YEAR
Globe Advent 17
Each week during the first lockdown in the UK, our Artistic Director Michelle Terry shared her thought of the week, drawing on Shakespeare’s language to reflect on the uncertainty of the time as we navigated our way through the Coronavirus pandemic. To end the year, Michelle this time turns to Shakespeare’s most harrowing tragedy, King Lear.
‘The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’
The end of a year always seems full of feeling: full of feeling for what has been and full of anticipation for what is to come. But the fullness of feeling, the weight and sadness of this past year, is almost too painful to obey, and there are no adequate words with which to speak the feelings in the way that, in King Lear, Edgar suggests we should.
It’s also difficult to ‘speak what we feel’, when we know everyone else is so full of feeling too. So we put on the brave face, allow the hollow lie of “I’m fine” to echo around the Zoom room, stiffen the upper lip and carry on.
But the feelings remain.
This is when I go in search of the poets; those shaman and sha-women of the village who find ways to speak what they feel when I can’t. And I find Nina Simone, singing her Feelings, Live at Montreux, Bill Hicks venting in the way only he can, or the brilliant Theatre of War finding any way possible to share and illuminate those epic Greek myths.
And of course, Shakespeare, who according to his friends John Heminges and Henry Condell:
‘Who, as he was a happy imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together’
And nowhere more so than in King Lear.
There were moments during this past year when I truly understood Gloucester’s observation: ”tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind’. I heard Lear’s cry for help: ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’. And I received afresh the moment when Lear is finally reunited with Cordelia:
‘Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’th’cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh…’
I feel such a longing for release at the moment: a release from lockdown, a release from the uncertainty, a release from the stress and anxiety, a release from the grip that this virus has on our lives and livelihoods, the choke on our freedom, our minds, our souls, and a release from the feelings that threaten to overwhelm me.
And then I think of Lear, having been separated for so long from his daughter, and asking for them to be locked away together, asking to be confined, asking to be isolated so they can have space and time to express the enormity of their feelings, whether that be through blessings, song, old tales, prayer, laughter… or forgiveness.
I understand the need for all of these expressions and gestures, but what I hadn’t expected was my response to the idea of forgiveness. Lear’s desire is not surprising given the hell he has put Cordelia through; what surprises me is how strongly I recognise and also feel this need for forgiveness. Not for any great crime, or grand misdemeanour; but it’s the daily imperfections of being human that seem to haunt me.
So I go in search of the poets again.
And this time I find Arsène Wenger on a recent Desert Island Discs, describing his strict Catholic upbringing, which of course involves confession: ‘We have to confess every week on the Steber. Sometimes I learned to lie as well because I didn’t always remember what I did wrong. But you came out fresh. You always felt OK. I have confessed. Now, God forgive me, I can start my life again’.
Exactly as Shakespeare describes:
‘When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live…’
I am not Catholic, but I understand the need for confession, the need for forgiveness, and the absolution that forgiveness brings; to have another day to start again, to say sorry, say goodbye, do better, and ‘mend the petty present’.
I recognise and understand the need for catharsis.
Our great hope is that in 2021 we will reunite again, we will return to the wide, wild and wonderful embrace of our wooden ‘O’, where we will congregate once more around those great plays and those great artists, who allow us and enable us to have this catharsis, to collectively experience, express and share those great great feelings of life.
In the meantime, wherever you are for Christmas, whatever this reprieve from lockdown has in store for you, and whoever you’re with, I wish for you laughter, song, old tales, prayer, blessings, and forgiveness.
‘So we’ll live’
I wish for you life and all the fullness of feelings it brings.
And when those feelings threaten to overwhelm, I wish for you even the briefest of time with the poets, (whoever they are for you), who, for now, and on our behalf, will find the right words, and find the best way to ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’
The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
— King Lear, Act V scene 3