June 28, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

With Will (Warwick Student Arts Festival) @ Warwick Arts Centre Studio

I’ve only managed to catch one show at this year’s Warwick Student Arts FestivalWith Will, a half-hour duologue. I don’t know the names of writer, director or actors, but I can only assume it comes from the same mind that created the very similar To Will, which I caught earlier this year.

The play, set around 1610, saw Thomas Middleton seeking out Shakespeare to ask if he could rewrite Macbeth to make it "better". The two chatted about life, plays, other writers etc., before "Will" finally agreed to let "Tom" rewrite the play – as long as he also had a crack at Measure for Measure.

The play had the exact same strengths and weaknesses as To Will. On the plus side, the performances were fine. The two female actors were witty and confident. Tom was presented as the younger, nervier partner, pacing the stage and nervously voicing criticisms and asking naive questions. Will, playing to the romantic genius notion of the Bard, was dramatic, rather smug but generous towards his fellow. The writing itself was also fit to purpose, mixing historical anecdote with a personal edge.

The problems were primarily structural. As with To Will, the writer had chosen to collate an extraordinary number of biographical and historical anecdotes (the unholy child of James Shapiro and Andrew Gurr, if that thought doesn’t chill you) rather than create an actual narrative. The best parts of the play touched on religion, as the vehemently anti-Catholic Tom challenged Will on his own beliefs; but the play didn’t have the courage to explore fiction, instead only gesturing at imaginative biography before make sharp left turns to talk about a completely different anecodote. The play covered everything from Shakespeare ranting about Kempe, to detailed analysis of Lear, to Shakespeare setting up the Globe, to why Burbage didn’t play Mercutio, to the political analogies of A Game at Chess. The grab-bag of information was fascinating, but in a pedagogic, final-year-practical-dissertation kind of way, rather than as a piece of theatre: the aim seemed to be to demonstrate the writer’s familiarity with as much early modern theatre history as possible, but really wanted a bit of careful selection to create a coherent throughline.

As a knowledge-display, it could have been much tighter too. If doing a biographical piece, why not pay attention to chronology? The idea of Middleton grilling Shakespeare on why his worldview was so bleak while writing Lear, for example, screams out for the play to acknowledge that the two men were also collaborating on Timon at probably almost exactly the same time; the generation gap between Middleton and Shakespeare could have opened up so many possibilities; and the range of plays discussed occasionally beggared belief – if Game at Chess was not premiered until eight years after Shakespeare’s death, for example, why were we discussing it alongside Shakespeare’s "recent" Coriolanus? Within the context of a dramatic fiction, of course, none of these are problems; this is just an observation that the strengths of the writing were diluted by the over-anxious need to cram in as much as possible.

However, With Will persuaded me of the potential of this kind of drama. Putting the two writers onstage to discuss their plays worked tremendously as a way into the unpacking of the themes and contexts that informed the writing. Of course it panders to author-centred ideas of writing – the idea of Middleton taking Yorkshire Tragedy to a publisher in order to earn a bit of cash not only offers to send book historians weeping to an early grave, but is also symptomatic of the biographical concern to explain all phenomena with reference to the over-arching, privileged agency of an author. It’s a useful set of questions to raise ahead of seeing Being Shakespeare in a couple of weeks. On its own, this production offered a great introduction to some of the better and lesser-known aspects of early modern theatrical history, and undoubtedly served as a wonderfully apt end-of-year send off to a group of Shakespearean undergrads due to get their exam results back tomorrow. Good luck!

Posted in Theatre review