W4W: What insane kings, painters and fictional detectives can teach us

Black and white photograph of an old man

Image: Pixabay

 

Our son is away in Spain at the moment – no doubt desperately trying to forget he has parents – so on Sunday, husband and I decided to stop obsessively checking our phones to see if he’d texted* and find a way of entertaining ourselves. Through this experiment in distraction, I stumbled upon the ideal way of contemplating my own

MORTALITY.

This is how.

In the morning, we mauled our way up Park Street (not – as a passing drunk wearing a beanie hat and carrying a stuffed monkey once told me –the  UK’s steepest shopping street, though it does a pretty good impression) to see the National Gallery touring exhibit Self-Portrait at the age of 63 by Rembrandt (below).

 

 

It’s a painting I’d seen in reproduction may times, but never as it where in the oily flesh. It’s stunning. From the reddened, bloated nose to the Bassett hound wrinkles around the eyes and the tufts of springy hair like fluffy headphones, Rembrandt looks like the kind of older man who’s seen a lot, done a lot, loved a lot, regrets some, but definitely not all. He looks like he has some great stories to tell and will relate every single one over many pints of beer – as long as you’re paying.

After breathing in the seventeenth-century,  we rolled back down the hill to the 250-year-old Theatre Royal to see one of the country’s finest stage actors ‒ Timothy West ‒  tackle King Lear. (See here for a pretty fair review).

The role of Lear’s one of those that makes actors wish decades of their lives away, as they get to play adoring, irrational, raging, grieving, playful, barking mad – and finally dead – in the space of an afternoon. I rarely find Shakespeare moving – perhaps the language takes it too far away from our own time to make a strong connection – but the late scenes between blind Gloucester (played by David Hargreaves) and his believed-to-be-lost- but-actually-just-naked-and-pretending-to-be-the-crazy-beggar-Poor-Tom son Edgar, genuinely brought a lump to the throat.

Three hours and a stage full of death later, we staggered home to eat chilli, stoke up Amazon Prime and watch another English knight – Sir Ian McKellen – as the  great detective, Mr Holmes. Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, this Sherlock is reduced to living in the countryside, away from the intrigue and peasoupers of London. He’s reduced in his faculties too, as the once sharpest mind in Britain has its deductive powers near destroyed by dementia. He has to write people’s names on his sleeve to remember them. Details of old cases float through his consciousness, dashing away before he can catch them. He’s still brusque, still superior, but McKellen gives him a fragile dignity as his mind crumbles that makes his portrayal the most sympathetic Holmes yet.

So, after a day stuffed with old men, what commonalities did I dwell on as I hugged my cocoa to me and sleep’s sticky fingers tugged my eyelids?

Well, that these depictions reminded me how mortal we all are, of course. That even the greatest of us – genius artists, kings, great minds – all face death the same. Also that there are many different ways to age: you could make the worst decision, with terrifying consequences for yourself and your loved ones as Lear does; or feel you have one more thing to prove, one more puzzle to solve, as Holmes does; or be alone, resigned, a little sad, as Rembrandt seems in one of the last portraits he painted before he died.

But one thing these old chaps (Rembrandt, West, Hargreaves, McKellen and Holmes) all have in common is showing that something wonderful, something great and beautiful – something near perfection – can be achieved no matter how many more years you have behind you than before.

Not a bad lesson to learn.


Written for dear Kat’s W4W.

*If you’re wondering, the answer was yes during his journey through France, but no from the moment the glorious Mediterranean sun hit his face. Rotten little swine.