Beneath a plain stone in Kensal Green Cemetery lies the most remarkable actor to tread the boards of any stage. Orator, costume designer, eccentric – yet his grave is decidedly plain.
Imagine you’ve just spent a decent amount of money to see (actor) in (show). You sit down with your Häagen-Dazs ice cream and programme; put your smart phone on silent and then sit back and watch a theatrical master tread the boards for your enjoyment.
Then envisage said-actor fluffing his lines. Then going down into the audience mid-scene for a chinwag. The script? It’s purely an advisory device; it doesn’t need to be followed. There’s a particular scene the actor is so fond of that they don’t perform it once, twice, but three times, until another actor decides to step in and try to steer the play back on course.
The house around you is in uproar. Some are in disbelief, some are bent double with laughter; the icon on the stage seemingly oblivious to the derision and confusion that he’s performing in front of. It’s unthinkable that an actor would dare do that to a key text like King Lear or The Duchess of Malfi but one historical one did – Robert Coates.
I first found about about Coates from David Coates (no relation, as far as we can tell) who I met from Twitter – he was looking for his grave and I, being the graveyard bloodhound that I am, gladly offered my help in finding where he was. Coates was an eccentric, and ‘probably homosexual’ – say no more; I had to find him.
Who was he & what did he do?
Coates was the only surviving child of an Antiguan plantation owner . Unlike his father, he was not a man of politics and lived in relative obscurity – initially wanting to obtain a commission in the regiment of Guards of which HRH the Duke of York was Colonel, until his father successfully persuaded him not to. Embarking in theatricals the same year that Nelson paid a visit to the island, his first foray into acting was welcomed by the locals.
Thus began a career of opulence and self belief that would easily rival the aesthetic of Liberace. Upon the death of his father and having the plantation managed by trustees, he set a course to England – Bath, originally – to become a thespian.
He would appear on stage in his own lavishly designed costumes – some entirely inappropriate to the character he was supposed to be playing. In Romeo and Juliet (his favourite part to play – hence his nickname ‘Romeo’ Coates) he went off stage and brought back a crowbar because he decided Capulet’s tomb needed to be opened mid-performance.
Despite the jeering and raucousness his performances produced, he did have his admirers – George IV and Dicken’s pal Sir Thomas Talfourd were ardent fans. He didn’t seem to care that his ability was mocked, or that theatre managers began to refuse booking him for the disgrace he brought to the art. One way he dealt with hecklers – he reminded them he was a ‘philanthophic actor’ and that all his wage would go to local charities. That shut up the naysayers.
Wearing fur in hot summers and emboridering his clothing with diamonds, he was a born showman. He was often seen riding around town in a curricle of his own design:
A particularly spectacular event happened when Coates was hired to give a reading of ‘an Ode to Nelson’ – a poem lamenting the loss of the great Admiral. Coates was accustomed to giving theatrical speeches – today he’d probably be one of the most popular after-dinner speakers on the circuit – and all seemed well until it seemed the host had invited the French minister of state. The minister, understandably insulted, was placated by Coates who reminded the minister of his Irish heritage and to essentially ‘be of that nationality for the evening’.
His later years had him live a quieter life. His last performance being in 1816, living in Boulogne for a while to escape his creditors. His end was as dramatic as some of his ‘best’ performances. After leaving a performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, he realised he’d left his viewing glasses in the stall where he’d been sitting. Climbing out of the Hansom cab he’d only just sat down in, he was struck by another – the driver, seeing what he’d done, drove off at full speed. Coates, with broken ribs and associated bruising, died at his home a few days later of a bacterial infection: the culprit was never found
‘This goes against everything he was’, remarked David, upon seeing his plain, unmarked slab in the inner circle of Kensal Green cemetery. A man of decadence and panache would surely have wanted an ornate memorial: it was not to be. Wherein his tomb betrays his remarkable lifestyle, hopefully this blog does something to remedy it.