February 27, 2011, by Peter Kirwan
To Will (Freshfest) @ The Dirty Duck, University of Warwick
A quick note about a short production I saw a couple of days ago. To Will was performed as part of a week-long new writing festival organised by Freshblood Theatre, one of Warwick’s many student drama societies. I didn’t see any programmes, unfortunately, so can’t recount the names of the actors, writer or director.
To Will was performed in the snug of the Dirty Duck, the Union’s pub. Set on the night of Shakespeare’s death, it featured Ben Jonson and Richard Burbage meeting in a pub and drinking to the memory of their friend. The two actors did a decent job; Jonson was bluff, blustering and very drunk; the slighter Burbage was calm, sarcastic and amused by Jonson’s self-absorption. At only half an hour long, all that was required of the actors was to keep its audience engaged by their company for the length of a pint; the atmosphere was a convivial and entertaining one.
The play itself smacked of an undergraduate performative dissertation rather than a piece of theatre. The plot, such as it was, essentially strung together anecdotes from Shakespeare’s lifetime in a slightly contrived dialogue ("Did I ever tell you about the performance of Richard II we put on for the Earl of Essex?" "No, what happened?" "Well, I’ll tell you.." etc.) and basic observations on Shakespeare’s dramatic career (Burbage: "I feel he tried to resolve his Hamnet issues in his final plays" and so on). As an excuse to retell a potted biography of Shakespeare in an entertaining format, the play succeeded admirably; but I couldn’t help but feel there was plenty of potential for some actual drama – both characters were hampered by the limits of known anecdote, and therefore the play only really came to life on the few occasions when they allowed themselves to respond in more modern terms to the implications of the anecdotes. With two such fantastic characters to play with, it seemed a shame to limit them to "history". In particular, Jonson’s invective against actors (which drew suitably ironic laughter in the context of a performance, of course) hinted at some interesting tensions, but these weren’t developed.
More interesting to me was the idea of performatively reimagining Shakespearean biography from the point of view of his contemporaries. While this wasn’t developed fully here, it’s a good and innovative way into revitalising the familiar stories, and contextualising what can often be a self-indulgent and overly-imaginative form of writing into a more sophisticated and socialised form. Shakespeare himself was a shadowy and ambiguous presence in this piece; a far more satisfying evocation of the individual than the conventional biographer’s attention to the few sporadic details we have. And theoretically, it’s also fitting – Shakespeare’s identity was largely constructed posthumously, and this piece allowed us to witness (imaginatively, of course) the very beginnings of this process as Jonson started composing his epitaph for the Folio. Treating this as the beginnings of Shakespeare, before his body was cold, this offered its audience food for thought.