October 5, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
I Am Shakespeare @ Warwick Arts Centre
Before I even begin, I would like to separate this play from the authorship debate. Mark Rylance, former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe and generally famous actor, is one of the most committed members of the anti-Stratfordian group, intent on questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Rylance’s personal conviction is that Francis Bacon is the most likely candidate, but his primary motivation is to open up the question. His new play, I Am Shakespeare, is centred around this debate.
The problem with this, from the point of view of the production, is that people are using it as an excuse to review the authorship debate rather than the production itself. This isn’t helped by Rylance’s clear bias and reams of information and testimony in the programme, but it hurts the production. I’m not a fan of the authorship debate myself, I feel it’s primarily a bunch of zealous conspiracy theories that have very little relevance to the plays – and after all, the play’s the thing. However, I was very keen not to let my own bias affect my judgement of the production. Pointless or not, the authorship debate is an interesting one, with all the guilty pleasures associated with any conspiracy theory, and even though I wasn’t about to be swayed I was interested to see what was to be said, and how he was going to say it.
Unfortunately, the play is bad. The concept itself is ludicrous. Mark Rylance’s character, Frank Charlton, is a doubter who runs a live webcam chat show trying to put the case for other authors. In a freak storm, he and his simple neighbour are visited by the ghosts of Shakspar, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere (because, of course, lightning storm combined with the world wide web produces ghosts) who all argue their own cases. Even if you’re still on board with the concept, all this creates is a dramatised debate. The scenes with Francis Bacon explaining his philosophy are some of the most tedious I’ve had to experience on stage as they leaped from conjecture to conjecture, fact to fact in a manner not unreminiscent of Time Team.
The comedy equally descended into the deeply unfortunate: a drunk Shakspar clocking a vitriolic Stratfordian; Mary Sidney flirting with a policeman coming to investigate a disturbance; Barry the neighbour clowning about in an attempt to create an everyman figure, all with the occasional Shakespearean quote thrown in to get a cheap laugh. Other jokes fell flat for different reasons: Frank’s embittered fantasy of proving the world’s most eminent Shakespeareans wrong may have worked elsewhere in the country, but when half the audience knows Jonathan Bate and Stanley Wells, insulting them isn’t going to go down well.
The play’s main difficulty, though, was in trying to cram in years of “scholarship” into a contrived stage situation. The dryness of the explanatory scenes removed almost any potential for actual drama- as interesting as signature comparisons may be, they are in no way dramatic. Livelier moments such as Edward de Vere’s entrance (which would have been very enjoyable if it weren’t for the fact the entire performance was lifted from Ben Affleck’s turn in Shakespeare In Love) were welcomed for the relief from the tedium of people talking.
The play’s structure worked heavily against it. The first half almost worked, with ghosts taking it in turn to come and make their case while Frank and Barry flapped about. The second half, however, descended into ridiculous chaos, with the conspiracy theories rushing into the deepest realms of fantasy (Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Kit Marlowe, Philip Sidney and Edward de Vere were all Elizabeth I’s illegitimate children, didn’t you know?) and some highly ill-advised interruptions. The fake audience member who stormed the stage as a fanatic Shakespearean was petty, the poll-taking of the audience was messy and unfocussed and the whole thing descended into an awful melodrama near the end as Barry and Frank turned on each other. If the play had made any attempt to make the audience give a damn about its two central characters this may have worked, but the human story was underdeveloped and uninteresting, and therefore the climax lacked any kind of impact.
So, what can be said for the production? To give Rylance credit, he did attempt to show all sides of the debate and went so far as to paint a very unsympathetic portrait of professional doubters (his character’s wife had left him as a result of his obsession). I also admit that I agree with the ultimate message of the play, that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as people are free to ask the question. It’s not a question I consider important, but I see no reason why people shouldn’t be allowed to study it. The attempt to use interactivity was also commendable even if the tiny audience couldn’t quite make it work. We were invited to phone the stage to ask questions, vote on our preferred candidate and, in the big climax, re-enacted Spartacus by all standing to scream “I am Shakespeare!”. This being right at the end of the play, it meant Rylance and co got a standing ovation, which is the biggest cheat I’ve ever seen in the theatre.
To finish, I’d say that I would be more than willing to hear Mark Rylance lecture on the subject. It’s an interesting debate and he’s clearly got a lot to say. But it’s the wrong topic for a play which ends up being a self-indulgent exercise and manages to kill the medium.
I am NOT Shakespeare.