The sound of domestic squabble came first, through the open doors and paneless windows of the mud huts, across the miasmatic, dank air typical of the months after the wet season; then came the noises made by small monkeys at the edge of the nearby forest, as they chased each other and the flurry, squirrel-like mammals they liked to eat; the thud of a dead-drunk villager meeting something hard would follow up; and, more often than not, Liam would be next, sticking his hands past the long piece of cloth that served as door in Dierk’s own hut as in many others, not quite as drunk as Liam would like but still holding a half-empty bottle of the terrible local brew.
Liam was a gangly Englishman, twenty-five years of age, fresh from getting a degree in agronomy from a second-class British university, in his first long stay “on the field” with locals, vicious mosquitoes and third-world illnesses, if one didn’t count the weeks he had spent backpacking through small mountain villages in Southern Spain in the summer, back in his teenage years. Dierk was Dutch, dark-skinned for one that had no known Levantine ancestors, thirty-two, almost but not quite a veteran in dealing with the situations and insects that drove Liam crazy.
That night, just as Dierk braced himself to reject Liam’s offering of a sip, Liam broke his usual routine of complaining about the sounds, sights and odors of their large central African village, and raised an unusual literary point, in a breathless, well-prepared manner:
“I reckon that King Lear is the most awful of all of Shakespeare’s works. All those murders, people dropping dead of madness, so much tearing of clothes and making horrified faces — You have to be really Shakespeare-fearing not to object to at least some of that, I think.”
Dierk, who was no expert in literature, and considered reading a dutiful act often completed by a guiltily hurried look at the list of sources at the end of a book or report, nodded non-committally as he always did when Liam expressed a thought or an opinion completely unrelated to their work. He was wholly uninterested in Liam’s various views on things, which often evolved and died like an uninteresting imaginary fauna in his head.
“You know that play, don’t you Dierk? King Lear? You have to know it.”
“Of course I know it.”
“Then you don’t think it’s awful?”
Dierk held Liam’s gaze bravely. Lately he often reflected on the first words Liam had addressed to him, when they met – “please tell me an Afrikaner joke”– and wondered how NGO bureaucracies had conspired to put them together, the only white people in one of the most isolated places on Earth. They had never got along, not from the very first moment – if only Liam would notice, everything would be much easier, professional, focused.
“I really don’t know much about literature,” Dierk finally said. “My opinion doesn’t really count.”
“OK, that’s no sin,” he said. “It’s not like I’m a scholar, myself. I’m just a guy with a laptop.”
“Well, yes. But the thing is – in my laptop I have a big file, with all of Shakespeare’s works. And I was recently compelled to read King Lear. I just finished. It’s just not a pretty ending.”
“And now you want to tell me how that goes?”
“Oh no, I think you’re going to see that for yourself.”
“Are you planning to fly me to the nearest TV?”
“You’re going to see King Lear right here, in our village. It’s being played already.”
Dierk realized that Liam was grinning like he did when he found something naughty about the locals, or when he talked to the monkeys in his atrocious French and the monkeys screeched back, appalled.
“You set up a theater group to perform the play?”
“No,” Liam said. “It’s no theater, my friend. It’s real life. The locals are playing King Lear in their real life, and they don’t realize.”
“Now I’m really lost, Liam.”
Liam leaned a bit closer, and glanced at the door, as if fearing spies. His tone dropped:
“You know, the play is about this king, Lear. He has three daughters, all with awful names – the oldest is a real bitch and the second one almost as bad, but Lear doesn’t know. The third one is all right, but Lear sends her to exile at the beginning of the play because she is too honest and tells him he’s going ga-ga.”
“King Lear is Big Man Mbutele, the head of the village, don’t you realize?”
Mbutele, called by all “Big Man”, was the wealthiest and most powerful man in the village. He had inherited his position as unofficial head when he father died and, at the age of sixty or so and in fairly bad health recently, he had failed to produce a male heir himself, so everyone in the village expected him to name the husband of one of his three daughters as such. Which he hadn’t done yet. And it was true that he had sent one of his daughters and her husband away, weeks ago, after some family quarrel everyone had in the village had speculated about. This much Dierk knew, and understood.
“I started to read the play when I remembered about the coincidence – you know, the three daughters, the old king who feels his time is past – “
“He’s not a king, and he may yet live a long time – “
“The question is – yesterday I talked to old Gereng, the fat lady who knows everything about the village – “
“She doesn’t know everything.”
“ – she said that Mbutele is going to divide his lands and his cattle between his daughters, and will retire so they can take care of him until he dies. He will appoint a new village head soon.”
“I’m sure that’s gossip.”
“What if it isn’t?”
“And what if it is? Is that what happens in the play? King Lear retires, divides his lands and then – what? He goes mad?”
“A lot of things happen after that.”
“I’m sure you’re dying to tell me.”
Liam rose to his feet, grinning again.
“You will see it happen. It’s more entertaining that way.”
Dierk worked hard. He was normally up just before daybreak, as soon as the noises in the forest hinted that the new day was to arrive; he exercised, ate lightly, and was on the fields before most of the farmers, notebook under his arm, taking it all in. Like Liam, his main job at the village was one of surveillance – he had to make a thorough evaluation of the village’s resources, farming land, water, forests, cattle, commons, and of the village’s crude but effective ownership patterns. For this task, Dierk and Liam had split the lands around the village: the eastern side, most densely tilled, with more demarcation conflicts and more important and concentrated sources of water, was Dierk’s. The western side, the easiest part, with low but steep forested slopes where monkeys let themselves be seen, as well as a small number of small-holdings and much of the pastures for Mbutele’s cattle, the village’s largest by far, was Liam’s.
All in all, Dierk had a long list of complaints about Liam’s work, that he ruminated upon as he walked purposely across the fields. They had six months to complete their project and, well into their seventh week, Liam had barely finished ten per cent of it. He hadn’t yet made any map of his area of responsibility (Dierk’s map was colored, and easily scannable) and didn’t have a clear idea of how the land was divided or what kind of markers to look for. Dierk suspected that he spent most of his time chatting in pidgin English with bored farmers who misled him in every possible sense, or looking for monkeys, or simply lying down under a shade.
Soon after lunch, in his early-afternoon run, Dierk came across Gabriel Ngeun, the village’s second-wealthiest man. He was standing next to a idle field, listening to what a younger man, whom Dierk didn’t immediately recognized, had to say.
In principle, Dierk had always disliked power and its representatives, including Mbutele himself, but he made an exception with Ngeun, a forty- or fifty-something thoughtful, dignified man with a thin pepper beard who looked like a beefier version of U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, a long-time hero of Dierk’s. He approached slowly, respectfully, a full-sized smile on his face – and he had to work hard to keep it in place as he realized that the man talking to Ngeun was Frank Ludan, the husband of Mbutele’s second-eldest daughter, a shady character, widely disliked figure in the village.
Ngeun only had the briefest of greetings for Dierk, but Ludan was talkative. He beamed confidence and satisfaction, as he told Dierk how Mbutele had agreed to give up his responsibilities as village chief, and move in with his daughters.
“Big Man wants to be a little smaller, I say,” Ludan whispered. “He old ox now, knows he can’t keep the herd together by himself.”
Dierk glanced at Ngeun, who looked far from happy about the news. He and the Big Man had known each other for their entire lives, and as far as Dierk knew they kept a respectful, if distant relationship. Perhaps it was simply that, in Mbutele’s retirement, Ngeun saw a reminder of what the future held for himself, Dierk thought.
“I’m sure it will all be for the best,” Dierk said, peering at Ludan.
“There was always a Big Man,” Ludan said, nodding. “Before him there was one, after him there will be another.”
Dierk chose to spend part of a Sunday at what he and Liam called “the Lagoon,” a large seasonal pond fed during the rainy season just passed, that the locals expected to last for a few weeks longer; it was a pleasant, breezy spot, not far from the village, shaded by large eucaliptus trees growing at odd angles off some low rocky hills, and was the closest thing that the village had to a swimming pool, leeches, water scorpions and mosquitoes notwithstanding.
It was only the second time Dierk had gone there, because he had coincided with Liam the first time (both had Sundays off), and he was a bit worried about the scorpions in particular. Sure enough, he saw some as he scouted the shore, and he also saw Liam, who was sitting close to the water, speaking with a young girl – one that was probably much younger than twenty.
Liam saw him and waved happily. Dierk waved back and retreated, made camp as far as possible and tried to nap. Still, he heard the sound of footsteps, and then the unmistakable English accent addressing him:
“You’re not asleep, mate, too early for that.”
Dierk rose and stared ahead: Liam had left his spectacles behind with the girl, and his short-sighted eyes had turned into narrow slits; he was shirtless, showing off his vaguely muscular chest – much more prominent that Dierk, who was spindly and averse to sports other than jogging – and his one tattoo, of what looked like a poorly defined falcon, in his right forearm. Dierk was quite obviously, straightforwardly ugly, but Liam was only undistinguished, and he was also fair-haired, a strong advantage in these lands. Dierk had easily been successful in avoiding the local girls and concentrating on intellectual pursuits, while Liam had been seen around with at least four different female companions.
“So what do you think about King Lear’s retirement with his daughters?”
“I suppose he’s old and wants to be taken care of,” he said, trying to project a judicious mix of boredom and common sense.
“You heard what I’ve heard, right – that he’s not getting along with them?”
“You like your rumors.”
“There’s no email in this village, or TV. One finds ways to know about things. That’s one of our tasks, isn’t it?”
Dierk’s face stiffened: Liam surely didn’t intend to get into a discussion of their tasks on a Sunday, not him. But Liam promptly squatted and his voice dropped into the faintest whisper.
“Listen, there’s a subplot in the play, involving the Earl of Gloucester, an important fellow in court, who has an illegitimate son, and then the son tricks him into disinheriting his legitimate son – Ngeun is the Earl, he has an illegitimate son.”
“Lots of people here do, especially those with lands.”
“People are saying Ngeun’s son had a fight with Mbutele, and now Ngeun is going to drive his real son away, like Mbutele did with his daughter. But it wasn’t Mbutele’s son, it was all a set up, I’m sure – ”
Dierk shook his head in disbelief.
“What are you talking about?”
“The play goes on, Dierk. I don’t know why or how, but it’s going on – ”
“You have to be kidding.”
“Ngeun fills Gloucester’s role perfectly.”
“I can’t believe I’m listening to you. Is this some sort of elaborate English prank?”
Liam nodded, and rose to his feet.
“You don’t want to know what happens next?” he asked.
Dierk hesitated for a second, and immediately realized he would hate himself for that second; that second would make him feel weak and stupid for a week at least.
“I’d rather have the intrigue,” Dierk responded.
Days later, as he made his way to his hut under a bright, clean sunset, Dierk was astonished by a sudden eruption of noise in the village – a confusion of wailing and squealing arising from the very center, where the old grand hut of Big Man Mbutele was, He rushed to the scene, and was immediately surrounded by a quick, perfect swirl of African confusion, men and women, young and old, running around, hands in their hands or up in the air; terrorized faces, frenzied eyes; kneeling mothers, weeping babies.
It was like a play – and in the middle stood Ludan, holding an AK 47 which he hoisted up and down, calling for revenge as he yelled threats in the local language, and a man Dierk knew barely knew, Ngeun’s bastard son Oktundo, looking sullen and squeezing a piece of paper between his hands: the two like actors taking up the rostrum, presiding over badly choreographed mayhem, extras that bumped one into another, without any sense of direction or purpose; multicolored robes, clouds of dust, heat, the echo of stomping feet.
Standing there in the clear, Dierk had the time to feel a rush of fear at the sight of the weapon, the first he had glimpsed in the village, and also to meditate on the strange ways of poor people the world over – how they made faces and expressed distress in loud, disconnected voices; how they screamed at the top of their lungs for justice or compensation; all of it, to be compared with the simple, constrained manner in which his mother had simply fainted in silence and dropped to the ground like a dynamited building, by properly organized stages and with no one getting hurt, in the funeral of Dierk’s father.
But presently Dierk understood what was being said: perhaps for his benefit, having seen the white man in his astonishment, Ludan had switched to his direct, effective English, and was explaining his rage in halting bursts:
“We go to the forest and we bring Ngeun! We go after them and we bring Mbutele! We fight traitors, we defend the people!”
Some of the youngest in attendance attempted a sort of tribal dance, lifting their feet further away from the ground, thickening the clouds of dust. Dierk withdrew, and took refuge behind a corner, then headed again for his hut, worried about the disorder and the blazing gun and the danger of it all, resolved not to think it through.
For one second, Dierk realized that, in such a small village, it would be impossible not to come across Liam; and then he saw Liam, calmly staring at him.
“I don’t understand what this is all about,” Dierk said, trying vainly to sound in control of himself.
“Well, Ngeun has realized he was framed by his bastard son, and went into the forest to look for his other son and Mbutele, who are together.”
“But the gun?”
“You probably saw the letter the bastard had in his hands. They are presenting it as evidence that Mbutele and Ngeun are trying to get help from the village’s enemies. Probably some other tribe across the forest.”
“That is absurd! Nobody could believe such a thing!”
“Well, Shakespeare has always made people ignore his worst stunts.”
Dierk stopped in amazement, confused and uncertain; Liam looked far, far from joking; he wondered to which extent he could believe anything Liam said, to which extent he should even talk to him again.
“You’re still talking about the play – “
“They’re going to get Ngeun, mate, and they’re going to gouge his eyes out.”
Dierk just turned his back to him and hurried away.
Dierk stepped into Liam’s hut in a daze, not bothering to warn, and was not surprised to see a girl sleeping in a corner, not completely covered by a thin blanket, and Liam sitting cross-legged in the opposite corner, smoking in perfect composure in the half-darkness. He glanced up and made an uncertain gesture, that Dierk understood to mean he was welcome; but, by the time his brain decoded that, Dierk had already dropped next to Liam.
“Don’t worry about her, she doesn’t really speak any English,” Liam said.
“They took Ngeun’s eyes out,” Dierk whispered, his voice trembling. “Ludan did.”
“And then one of Mbutele’s men killed Ludan.”
Dierk said nothing. Just as silently, Liam grabbed his laptop and started it up. Their corner of the hut was lit by the brilliant colors of the Windows 98 loading screen.
“It’s all here, in the file with the play. Just have a look by yourself.”
Liam finished his cigarette while Dierk read, then lit another; then he waited. The girl woke up at some point, fixed her large white eyes on them both, but Liam put her back to sleep with softly-slurred nonsense. Outside, the monkeys were quiet, the night was pitch dark and silent, only disturbed by the faint squawks of forest birds who would never shut up.
When Dierk turned to Liam, his face had drooped.
“Everybody is going to die,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“A lot of them. And others just will go crazy and – um, ´wander the heath.’””
Dierk swallowed, uncertain of whether he should go on talking, or keep his thoughts to himself. He decided to go on for now.
“We have to do something. We can’t let this happen.”
“There’s nothing we can do.”
“There’s always something you can do. This doesn’t have to happen.”
“What makes you think you can intervene and change things, at this point?”
“If you can change it, then you might as well not do anything. That would mean it’s not pre-determined, it doesn’t have to happen. Nobody else has to die. Something different will happen.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
“Then it won’t be your fault.”
“But it will be, because I had the power to stop it.”
“I think we hit a circular argument.”
Liam smirked, and nodded to himself. Dierk remained still, suddenly haunted by the thought that he himself was becoming a character in a period piece, with a role that he had been assigned to play – the disquieted believer in fixing things, clashing against the Liam character who calmly witnessed nasty, foreseen events unfold. That perhaps had been their problem all along.
Dierk stood up, exchanged a glance with Liam and marched off into the night.
The village was a large assemblage of dwellings, a puzzling accretion of mud walls extending seemingly in every direction that would have merited the name of town, if it had at least an infirmary, or a school that had a ceiling standing. Silent under the exalted morning sun, devoid of people or wandering farm animals, it vaguely resembled computer animations of neolithic-era ruins that Dierk had seen on TV (for he made a point of only watching news and documentaries, when left with no recourse other than paying attention to the TV): and Dierk was the intrepid archeologist character walking among the pixel landscape, pretending to be in awe at the sight brought back from millennia.
He imagined families cowering behind the flimsy walls, peering at him from small windows and the slits at the sides of doors, clutching their knives and perhaps maybe the occasional bow, a nice touch of local color; the women and children huddled together in panic, the men pretending to be in control, steely gaze ahead aspiring to protect the household.
No such men were in evidence in the hut Dierk tiptoed into. Only the old gossip woman, Gereng, a childless, solid widow who had spent her youth as a maid and cook in the capital and knew how to know about things, and English. She was sitting, calmly enough, on a low metallic stool, likely a prized possession, frowning at nothing in particular, like a battered robot awaiting commands to be activated.
Dierk took a seat on the dirt floor next to Gereng, with as much reverence as he was able to summon, and asked about the weather.
“Big group of men left early the morning,” Gereng said, straight to the point. “Oktundo is boss, with others that were Big Man servants, followers. Now all hate him, want to kill him. They go to forest, look for Mehere fighters now with Big Man, Ngeun and Oktundo brother. They have some guns, Mehere fighters have few, they think.”
“Why is everybody hiding if the fighters are all in the forest?”
“People know fighters. No first time of trouble with Mehere.”
Dierk coughed nervously, unnecessarily. He smelled a strange stink in the hut, something that had recently been cooked, or should have been cooked, that he couldn’t quite identify. Sometimes he wished he had the farmers’ strong sense of smell; very often he was glad he didn’t.
“You must tell people Oktundo no good man. He will be killed too, if he doesn’t stop fighting the Big Man. And Ngeun, and the Big Man. They all will die.”
“You a witch-doctor?”, Gereng asked.
“You say all things you want. I say no nothing. I hear things, I see things, I tell things. I don’t see the future, I no witch doctor.”
“Oktundo thinks he can – “
“I no want no trouble with Oktundo. He no fight small people, he fight big people.”
Dierk made his way to the edge of the forest, ignoring a punishing midday sun that reinforced his sense of sacrifice and worth. He then stood there for a long time, listening to the soft sounds overhead – birds, monkeys getting awake, large lizards hurrying up the tree-trunks. When he got tired, he sat on a rock and marveled at the strangeness of the sights around him. He had seen them all many times before, but the circumstances made them all different, gave them an unnatural tinge: he imagined that’s how soldiers see things before they face the enemy; or convicts as they await sentencing.
The noise made by dirt and leaves crunching under feet made him turn around, and there he saw Liam, approaching with the absent, particularly English air he had taken on since the whole series of events started to unfold.
“I hoped I would find you here,” Liam said. “I trusted you wouldn’t be so stupid as to chase them through the forest.”
“I don’t really know what I would say, if I came across them.”
“Come on, let’s get back to the huts. I have some lunch for you”
Dierk stood up, absurd but not hungry, and followed Liam back to the village.
After nightfall, when the yelling and squealing resumed in the village, Dierk surprised himself by feeling relieved. It was all over, probably, with a bunch of dead bodies to show for it; but that meant he could be get back to his field-work as early as one, two days, three at most: ponder the implications of the recent events as he strolled happily under the sun, and eventually, perhaps, forget about it all. It was just a matter of letting things fall back into place, Dierk thought as he peeked into the black through the slender window of his hut.
Time passed, and the noises ceased. He tried to go back to sleep, and hoped for an unexpected visit by Liam. Liam would know, he would have learnt that the proceedings had been conducted to complete the sorry tale, with the properly ordered series of butcheries that had left King Lear – Big Man Mbutele, Dierk corrected himself, hastily – dead and replaced by Ngeun’s eldest son, slayer of his treacherous half-brother Oktundo, survivor of the mayhem and new lord of the realm.
Dierk didn’t fall asleep, and tired of waiting. He woke up and, after considerable thought, sneaked in the darkness towards Gereng’s hut.
The old woman was awake; she turned to Dierk with an uncertain half-smile.
“You said you no witch-doctor,” she whispered. “But you are.”
“They’re all dead, aren’t they?”
“Many died, yes. Many killing tonight. Mehere fighters also died in the evening.”
“Oktundo died too, yes? His brother killed him.”
“You know, witch-doctor.”
“They shouldn’t have been killed. Big Man was good, was fair, he didn’t deserve to die like that.”
Gereng’s half-smile went away.
“You no talk to people. You know.”
“Well, yes – “
“But you know wrong. Ngeun dead, Oktundo dead, many dead, but Big Man alive. Big Man still is Big Man.”
Dierk stared at her in disbelief for a few seconds.
“You’re wrong,” he said. “Big Man dead too.”
Gereng shook her head, and now she beamed; she looked as she had defeated the evil spirits herself.
“No, witch-doctor wrong. And Big Man alive.”
Dierk hurried back to Liam’s hut, all precaution gone. Liam was alone, smoking again; he grinned and rolled his eyes.
“Mbutele survived?” Dierk asked.
“That seems to be the case.”
Dierk dropped on the floor, in astonishment.
“But the play – “
“Yes, he should have been killed,” Liam said.
“Maybe your file was wrong – ”
“No, my file is right. I also saw the play when I was a little boy, and all I can remember from that is that Lear died.”
“So – “
“Not only that. Mbutele’s third daughter, Cordelia, she’s also alive. Apparently, they say she’s going to marry Ngeun’s son so they can take over when the Big Man goes away for good.”
“Cordelia was supposed to die too. In the play.”
“So we were wrong.”
“I was wrong,” Liam sighed. “Looks like the locals weren’t really playing King Lear for our benefit, after all.”
Out of Africa, Liam dropped out of the humanitarian business, and Dierk found jobs at big offices – first London, then Geneva. For years, he climbed the thorny corporate ladder of the profession, giving speeches on climate change, sustainable development and Israeli iniquities along the way. He smiled for pictures with trees and generic medicines and ministers of cooperation, got a vegetarian lady pregnant with an ugly girl, then got himself a vasectomy because one must think about the moral burden of bringing another poor sufferer to this wrecked forsaken planet, and the sufferers leave deep carbon footprints too.
Hard as he tried, as the years passed Dierk never quite managed to stop thinking about those days in Mbutele’s village, when the known world took such a literary turn and destiny seemed absurdly written on a laptop’s screen showing Shakespeare’s works. At first, his strategy was one of benign neglect: whenever the remembrances came, he would shrug them off and would think about something else, equally shocking and disturbing, such as the finely-shaped buttocks of a certain co-worker, or garlic-heavy Spanish food. When that failed, he considered writing a quick, scientific-like report of the events, “to get it out of my system,” as he confided to his uncomprehending two-year old daughter, finally feeling the full strength of a cliché he had always thought of as unnecessary.
He never wrote the report. He was a tentative, slow and indifferent writer, and the idea of putting everything into a file that, even if deleted, could be seen by someone someday made him extremely uncomfortable. But the report hovered around his head, intruding in his mind, disturbing his concentration as he considered the subtlest points of his dreary, desk-bound labors. He did put a positive spin on it – wasn’t it all the result of a repressed, colonial-style framing of the local life? Liam, that reluctant humanitarian worker whose main interest in the work was of a sexual nature, had talked him into believing that those self-reliant Africans of the bush were pre-destined to conduct themselves according to the words written by a sixteenth-century white male, and not the most enlightened of them all. Didn’t that stink of colonial scorn of the worst sort? Of course the Africans couldn’t be seen as true, fully-fledged drivers of their own destiny; they had to follow the white man’s script.
And then there were the inconsistencies, the points where the record of events differed from the script itself, and these only grew as the years passed and the memories grew hazier even as the questions grew sharper. Mbutele’s two eldest sisters, for example – weren’t they supposed to have been left to “wander the heath” as penitence for their mistreatment of their father? Dierk had no recollection that such had been the case. And had they lusted for Oktundo? Probably not, which weakened Liam’s case, as Dierk had taken to call it, even more.
These considerations helped Dierk in his slow, methodical work of pushing the whole thing to a distant corner of his mind. He had other, more pressing issues to worry about, especially after his companion left him, and shut him off from all contact with his five-year old daughter. And then Liam reappeared.
Dierk saw him across a large hall where a spanking fundraiser was being held, as part of a global campaign to help the poor women and children of Turkey, after the latest big terrible, man-abetted disaster there. He immediately realized he hadn’t rejoined the humanitarian business – rather than the open shirt collar de rigueur for middle-ranking and top NGO officials, Liam proudly wore a tie, and his dark suit screamed corporate salaries, blood money, all over. A lobbyist, or some such. No wonder.
Liam had seen him too. He approached and they shook hands. They exchanged small talk, and discussed some minor sideshow of the Turkey disaster that had excited the European press tremendously; they agreed that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to write for the media. Then, Liam nonchalantly raised the issue of their time together in Africa.
“Plenty of strange things happened, uh, plenty of things,” he said.
“Well, there was also the fact that we were young and easily impressed,” Dierk said, feeling upset at the realization that, unlike himself, Liam was still truly young.
“Correct. Still, the whole thing really got me intrigued for some time, you know. I even did some research on it – “
“Yes. You see, King Lear is a curious and very famous play. Old too. There’s a big body of scholarship built around it.”
“Sure,” Dierk said, felling a tad less tense now. Liam smirked.
“And not only scholarship. Like other old plays, one of the most curious facts about King Lear is that it has many alternative versions. Most of them are pretty modern, you know – the sort of adaptation where King Lear is some African village leader, or let’s say a CEO in a big ruthless corporation – ”
“ – And then there are the old versions. Those made in the early modern era, so that audiences wouldn’t be shocked by Shakespeare’s affection for just killing off characters to advance the plot.”
Liam stopped, and peeked funnily at Dierk, who said nothing.
“So I found out about this version. It was produced in 1681, but one Nahum Tate. It sticks fairly close to the original, but there’s a key difference, a happy ending. At the end, Edgar and Cornelia marry, and King Lear takes his throne back.”
Dierk gripped his drink hard.
“So what are you trying to say,” he asked.
“You know what I’m trying to say, old friend. The Africans were performing a play all right, just not Shakespeare’s King Lear. They were playing Tate’s.”
“And they played it right to the end. There was nothing we could do about it.”
Dierk found a vague sense of amusement in Liam’s eyes. He shook his head, and opened his mouth, finding that it was best to say something, anything, rather than staying silent. He couldn’t think of anything; Liam, not disappointed, grinned, bowed and slipped away.