How wonderful! I am not sure one should be allowed to have this much fun.
It seems very indulgent – to launch my novel about Shakespeare’s fight choreographer, at one of Canada’s major Shakespeare festivals, Bard on the Beach, surrounded by some of the world’s best sword fighters… while wearing pantaloons. To be able to fight with them, dramatizing a battle from the novel. To be able to read a roistering section to a packed house, get the laughs, hear the gasps. To be able to hear another part read in the mellifluous tones of a top actor like Christopher Gaze. To be…
… or not to be. Of course. Because this was also a night that celebrated another of my obsessions: Hamlet. I talked about ‘setting the time machine’s dial for a certain time and place: April 2nd 1601, the Globe Theatre, London and the very first time Shakespeare and his company walked out onto the platform and someone hissed, ‘Who’s there?’ This was the closest I could get to that journey. “Words. Words! Words?” as the Dane says. And, in this case, swords, swords, swords, before 500 people, including my nine year old son, in a play about fathers and sons, in a novel that reflects the same. So, of all the lovely comments afterwards, my son’s was perhaps the best. ‘What was your favourite part of the evening,’ I asked him. ‘Watching you perform. You rocked, Dad!’
I am not sure you can rock in a ruff… but I certainly enjoyed myself. There was all that I loved about theatre when it really works. My nerves beforehand, convinced I would forget all I meant to say; said nerves vanishing the moment I hit the lights and remembered that I was there to share, not lecture. To include. To help make of the company gathered, on and off the stage, one fellowship. The novel talks about it. About my character, John Lawley, ‘bound like everyone else upon the scaffold, before it: a congregation caught in holiness, in devilry – and in something else too.’ Other than my son’s, some of the nicest comments afterwards spoke to that. How it all felt we were part of the same event. Audience and actors, one.
I am never entirely sure what I am going to say. I do bullet points before – then go out there and hope I remember them. I do, mostly. But if I fail to make some point, I inevitably come up with others, my mind bursting with this chance to air my obsessions: Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. Theatre, especially actors. Bladed weaponry, especially swords. And, of course: Words words words.
Highlights of the evening? Well, it was truly one large blur of excitement. Telling stories, describing the various journeys that led to me standing there, in life, in the novel. Watching such talented practitioners perform. Devon Boorman, Maestro of Academie Duello, the medieval martial arts school here, had organized and choreographed superbly. And in keeping with the live nature of the event, conducted a ‘prize fight’, where top students spontaneously had at it with a variety of weapons. They were all quite wonderful. Watching other great fighters perform fights described in the novel – David McCormick, the Academie’s choreographer, as Prince Hal killing Edward Foy’s Hotspur from Henry IV Part One. Recent graduates, Kayla Bigras (one of two excellent swordswomen fighting that night, for it’s not only a boy’s game!) and Camden Filtness doing Hamlet vs. Laertes superbly, analyzed wonderfully by the Bard choreographer, Nick Harrison. Hearing Mr Gaze speak my words about that first performance, forgetting I wrote them, losing myself in his moving rendition. Lots of information was given out, about the times, the politics of state and theatre, the circumstances that gave rise to the play, to the novel. People, I believe, learned a lot, as they say they do in my books. Yet, as in them, it never felt like a lecture.
Perhaps the ultimate buzz among so many was the ultimate one – when I got to fight as my creation, John Lawley, Shakespeare’s fight choreographer. As Hamlet says, ‘I have been continually in practice’. Months of rehearsals, beginning in my back garden in May with Maestro Boorman, then concentrated ones at the Academie. I was coached and supported by Devon, by everyone there and especially by my opponent, Matheus Olmedo, 6’6” of Brazilian braggadocio, a superb swordsman, who forced me to raise my game. Lawley feels old, as did I sometimes, and was able to play that… to the hilt. And in keeping with the night, I don’t think the fight had ever gone better.
One fantasy totally fulfilled – fighting as my creation, with backsword and buckler, slaying the rapier-wielding Spanish foe, centre stage, before 500 people.
Afterwards, I signed books for an hour. (Fortunately, people kept bringing me beer.) And it was a true pleasure to meet the other participants in the event – an audience still glowing from the experience.
I finally got home, after five weeks away. A joy to now be de-briefing myself, at my desk. And I haven’t had too much of a come down. Because of this I am quite sure – this was too fun an event to do just the once. In some form, in some other place, John Lawley will fight again. That first performance of Hamlet will be conjured anew. In the imagination of my readers – and beyond!
Till then, thanks once more to all upon the platform, before it – and as for my ‘Sweet Prince’: ‘Flights of Angels sing thee to thy (temporary) rest.”