Jonathan Kay describes the power of acting the fool

“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere”— William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

JONATHAN Kay describes himself as a 21st century fool. “I started with the idea that one would have to be a fool to have nothing in your head. It evolved from there.”

Based in Somerset, where he has often be found holding court at Glastonbury’s Theatre and Circus field, Kay’s background in theatre evolved over 30 years into a form of performance with the potential for profound effect on modern audiences; Kay takes the stage for improvised interactions that are part theatre and part a return to the medieval court. No-one is safe from his fool’s gaze, and yet audiences respond warmly, inviting intimacy and shared mirth.

The figure of the court jester or fool has captured human imagination in European, Indian, and Chinese lore since long before Shakespeare’s time. Part actors, part comedians, and part soothsayers, their insights and pratfalls have made people laugh at human folly, shining a light deep into the recesses of our egos.

“You have to win the audience, so that they give you that licence, otherwise they won’t see you as a fool, but as somebody saying things that they’ve got no permission to say,” Kay says. “There has to be an endearing quality between the audience and the performer. I couldn’t do it if there wasn’t a positive aspect; then it would just be insulting, but it’s a fine line between insulting and fun.”

The therapeutic and occasionally subversive power of laughter is well-documented. April Fool’s Day itself may have its origins as a form of protest against the Edict of Roussillon, a proclamation by the French King that New Year’s Day was to be celebrated on January 1; in 16th century France the new year was celebrated for a week from March 25, culminating in a feast on the first of April. Charles IX’s ruling may have given rise to the “Poisson d’Avril” (the “fish of April”): A day of protest in the form of nonsensical acts.

At the core of Kay’s work is getting his audience to recognise the fool in all of us, part of the condition of human duality, he says. Everybody contains within them the characters of both the king and the fool.

“Everybody has authority and everybody has a foolish aspect. It’s a balance, so everybody really has that quality; they hover between the respectability of a person and the underlying humour; religious things, sexual things, all these things are hidden behind a façade.”

Having spent 30 years developing a structure of fooling, Kay gives workshops that have been used by actors, directors, and theatre developers as a way of unlocking creativity and dispelling fear in performance. “The fool doesn’t have judgement and he’s not a spy; he plays the fool for the intimate quality, to explore humanity and what strange paradoxes we get ourselves into,” says Kay.

Some attendees have no background in performing arts, instead being drawn to the therapeutic benefits of “going deeper and deeper into that sacred and secret and scarred place which we all possess and which we protect against all comers,” as Kay puts it. “But the fool knows that we all share such things and, when we all experience these things, then there’s nobody humiliated.”

  • Jonathan Kay’s five-day workshop, April 25- 29 in the Granary in Cork


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