What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!
Almost two decades ago, my parents took me to see Hamlet in the restored, Italian Renaissance style theatre that has alternately been a jewel, a near-ruin, and a jewel again in my hometown.
I don’t remember much about the production. I was too young then to understand Shakespeare properly, I might be too young to understand it now, but I do remember that there was fire stage.
I remember because this was the hook, the carrot the parentals dangled to get me to go quietly.
There had been write-ups in the paper and special permits issued by the Fire Marshall to make the pyrotechnics in the Perot possible and I was then (and now) a firebug, same as my Daddy before me.
When it arrived, the fire was carried on stage by what I now know are the watchmen who first meet the king’s ghost in the first act. From our balcony seats, my promised flames looked suspiciously like a sterno can nestled in a wide, shallow bucket of dirt.
In the short list of life’s great disappointments, the fire in Hamlet ranks… somewhere.
Probably pretty middling. It’s been a good couple of decades and a bit.
Since then, I have been blessed to see fire on stage again and again and again.
From a community production of Legally Blonde that Dad took me to when I was about 15, to that Queen cover band (on a school night) Mom and I saw my senior year just because we could, to the Royal Moscow Ballet’s Swan Lake early this year with some friends here in Ireland, there has been great theatre and music and stage-fire across my life.
There’s magic in it.
Magic in the idea that there are people out there putting in the effort.
In a time when the world’s catalogue of film is a few clicks and an illegal stream away, the idea of getting dressed up, buying a ticket, and sitting in a crowd of strangers to watch actors who could fail at any second—it’s almost ludicrous.
Not paying for the cinematic polish of a movie theater. The cemented product that is a film.
But, paying for people. People who miss cues or forget lines or drop the curtain too soon or move the spotlight too fast—all things I have seen—but paying nonetheless.
Theatre in some form is possibly our earliest form of entertainment, from travelling bards and musicians to the Greek chorus and the religious pageants of the middle ages, to the incredible spectacle at La Monnaie today, we seem to have always had this fascination with telling stories and watching stories told.
It’s instinctual, intrinsic.
Part of what makes us human.
What makes that ticket worth the cost.
There’s a production of The Merchant of Venice being staged next month at the little theatre near my house here in Cork, and I think I’ll go. At twenty-six, I’ve learned a little more about Shakespeare than that first, Hamlet production.
I’ve learned appreciation for the people who breathe life and change and meaning into texts long since pinned and petrified by print and ink and centuries.
Appreciation for the firemakers.