IN 1976, Bath and Bristol’s favourite writer, director and pantomime Dame, Chris Harris wrote and played the only role in Kempe’s Jig, a play that followed Shakespeare’s best-known fool as he danced the 125 miles from London to Norwich.
A natural clown and tumbler, Chris brought out the physical comedy, dancing and mime talents of this remarkable man who is credited with originating many of Shakespeare’s best loved comic characters. Writer TG Hofman and actor Robin Leetham take the same character and delve more into the person behind the semi-tragic figure, once top of his profession, but who died a pauper, almost forgotten by his once-adoring fans.
On a bare stage with only a three-legged stool, a wooden hand-held Punch and a tiny mouse – who, like Will ‘Cavaliero’ Kempe is nearing the end of its life – to keep him company, Robin tells the story of Kempe’s rise and fall, full of irony and with little self-pity.
Even at this stage of his life, reduced to busking outside the Globe Theatre, of which he was an original share-holder, he still sees the glass pf life, helped by a large bottle of Sake, as half full.
We discover how as a 12-year old he became bewitched by the theatre when Richard Tarlton and the Earl of Leicester’s Men came to town. Learning from that famous Elizabethan clown, whom he finally replaced, he moved on to tour the continent where, at Elsinore, he found favour in the eyes of King Frederick 11 of Denmark.
When he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a love-hate relationship began with Will Shakespeare, who, according to Leetham’s Kempe, was a genius of a writer but a thief of other people’s plot ideas. I leave you to ponder where the connection between the two men and the doings at Elsinore Castle ended on stage.
Nick Bottom, Dogberry, Touchstone and even Sir John Falstaff (although there is some doubt as to whether he actually played this role) and other of Shakespeare’s fools, according to this narrative, owe as much to Wiil Kempe as they do to Will Shakespeare.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the facts about which characters he actually originated, or how much Shakespeare contributed to his fall from grace, within a few years of leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Kempe was dead, an almost-forgotten man aged just 43. Like many other facts about Shakespeare’s Fool, that number can be challenged as the date of his birth has never been accurately established.
Playing with the ease of someone completely comfortable with the text, Robin Leetham paints a picture of a most likable man who realises that he as well as others are responsible for the highs and lows of his life. As for personal relationships, apart from his being besotted by a black-haired beauty when only 12, the show concentrates on his professional rather than personal life.
That same character could be found hiding behind the clowning and comedy in Kempe’s Jig, but with Hofman and Leetham’s wider canvas, you may learn more about Kempe the man from this view of his life.
The show is at Minchinhampton Market House, Market Square, on Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th October and on 27th January 2024 there will be two performances in the Pound Arts Centre at Corsham.