these are the abstracts of my time
Will Kemp worked alongside Will Shakespeare as a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men during the 1590s and he was known to be one of the comic masters of his era. He was also possessed of the athletic prowess not only to be ‘the undisputed master of the jig’ that usually ended play performances of the period, but also to undertake a marathon Morris dance from London to Norwich in 1600. Kemp was massively popular, playing roles such as Peter in Romeo and Juliet, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, and probably Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Sir John Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. He really was the celebrity comic of his day.
James Shapiro, in his book 1599, describes how, in that year, Kemp left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in somewhat bitter circumstances, his style of improvisational clowning having fallen out of favour among his colleagues. Shakespeare later had Hamlet griping about the ‘ambition’ of the comedian whose jesting distracts the audience from the more serious aspects of a play – and one may speculate about whether it was Kemp’s ambition or Shakespeare’s that caused the rift. Clearly, the broad, bawdy humour of the jig wasn’t going to work in the type of tragedies that Shakespeare began to produce in the early part of the new century, when he was at the peak of his powers as a dramatist.
Though Shakespeare won out when it came to the judgement of history, Kemp is nonetheless an interesting figure in his own right. David Wiles devotes his book, Shakespeare’s Clown to Kemp’s career, and a fascinating study it is. Kemp also wrote his own account of his dance from London to Norwich, calling it Kemp’s Nine Day’s Wonder.
Chris Harris has made a one-man show about the story of Will Kemp – and a very entertaining evening of story-telling and comedy it is. Harris creates a lot of fun from the imagined creative rivalries between Kemp and Shakespeare. Stung by Shakespeare’s criticism of improvisational comedy in Hamlet, Kemp repeatedly complains about his thwarted ambitions: ‘I could have played the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet’ . There is pathos from an old man of the theatre whose talent has been superceded by a more modern style, but we also we find Kemp to be the master of description of the nastier side of Elizabethan life, such as the Plague, bear-baiting and public executions. One of the fascinating aspects of Chris Harris’s performance is in the way that he situates Kemp within the tradition of popular English entertainment. Kemp comes across as the ancestor of comedians such as Ken Dodd, as well as the many other celebrity performers whose appearance causes the turnout of huge crowds of fans.
Chris Harris successfully engaged with the audience in Salisbury (some Morris dancers in on the night when I saw it!) and they certainly seemed to leave with smiling faces. For anyone unfamiliar with this aspect of Shakespearean theatre history, they would have left better informed than when they arrived. A great night out.
Kemp’s Jig was performed at Salisbury Playhouse.