Edinburgh Fringe 2021
Join Kempe as he gives his final performance to an audience of a mouse and a marrot, and tells us what really happened between him and Shakespeare in a bravura performance from Rob Leetham.
“Welcome to this house of plague”, intones Rob Leetham, redolent in a Shakespearian fool’s costume of bright colours, odd stockings and a general air of chaotic informality. It’s an appropriate remark given the latest plague to affect the world and a reminder that not a lot has changed since Will Kempe bestrode the boards over four centuries ago.
We join Kempe for what has been imagined as his final performance, the audience consisting of just a mouse on whom our fallen hero bestows the name Morris. But how did it all come to this? One of theatre’s greats reduced to begging for farthings on the streets, ignored and unknown when royalty once had been hanging on his every word, the mere twitch of an eyebrow the signal for laughter and applause?
Will ‘Cavaliero’ Kempe was one of the finest clowns of Elizabethan theatre rising to prominence almost by happenchance following an early break that saw him taken on by Richard Burbage’s father, James, as a bit-part actor in Leicester’s Men. Quickly establishing himself as one of the great clown Richard Tarlton’s comedic disciples, Kempe found himself cast as his mentor’s successor following the death of the latter in 1588, firing a meteoric ascent to what today would be regarded as “celebrity status”.
His subsequent association with Shakespeare led the latter to script roles playing to Kempe’s strengths as a comic actor – he was an early adopter of the emerging commedia dell’arte school of performance – including Dogberry, Dromio, Bottom, Gobbo and (according to some academics) Falstaff.
But it all appears to have ended in tears, possibly due to Kempe’s proclivity for improvisation. However, there is no doubt that it was the dispute with the Bard that led to a decline and fall that was as rapid as Kempe’s ascent. It is widely believed that Kempe ended his life homeless and penniless, although whether he ended his days playing to a mouse and a morrat perhaps owes more to the imagination of writer T G Hofman, the force behind Shakespeare’s Fool, brought to life by a one-man bravura performance from Rob Leetham at theSpaceUK’s impressive Main Theatre in Symposium Hall.
Directed by Ben Humphrey, Leetham delivers a show that is as educational and informative as it is entertaining. Using the bare minimum in terms of set and props – a milking stool, puppet, jester’s hat and a cushion – he takes us through Kempe’s early life, his craving for the power that actors command when the eyes and ears of the audience are on them, the intoxication that results from their nightly acclamation and the fame and recognition of the masses.
Leetham is an imperious storyteller, capturing and retaining the eyes and ears of his own audience as he works his way through the many and varied characters that passed through Kempe’s life using subtle changes in accent and demeanour. Creative use of simple props allows him to give the impression that it’s more than just him on stage resulting in the seventy minute performance seeming to slip by in a trice, itself a tribute to his power as a storyteller.
This is an impressive and enjoyable piece of theatre – a scrupulously researched and imaginatively crafted script brought to life by an actor at the top of his game. The audience feedback was one that Kempe himself would have been proud to have received in his pomp. Make tracks for this one whilst there are still tickets available. Highly recommended.