July 18, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Being Shakespeare @ Trafalgar Studios

Writing about web page http://www.beingshakespeare.com/

My PhD supervisor, Jonathan Bate, has a play on at Trafalgar Studios at the moment, Being Shakespeare.The show is essentially a reduced version of his last book on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, with Simon Callow delivering a talk about Shakespeare’s life and career divided into Jacques’ seven ages of man, punctuated by extracts from the plays.

The script functioned as an ideal popular introduction to Shakespearean biography and life. Most of the big anecdotes and famous speeches were there, with the "seven ages" hook working to structure things in an interesting thematic way. It touched on everything from collaboration to biographical speculation, from theatrical working practices to the religion of the age, and had a clear arc from childhood to the grand career, before slowing down as Shakespeare approached death.

The reduction of the book did result in two things that disappointed me. One was the casual elision of chronology at certain points, such as a suggestion that Shakespeare’s contribution to Thomas More was part of a return to collaboration at the very end of Shakespeare’s career coinciding with his Fletcher collaborations, rather than occurring ten years earlier. Instances like this are only important to scholars like me, of course, but seemed unnecessary. The other was the definitive assertion of ideas which can only be conjectural – Callow’s authoritative voice spoke of Shakespeare moving home to Stratford in the early 1600s, of his state of mind at the time of his son’s death, of his historical locations etc. in the language of established fact, and while it’s obviously necessary to make a positive stand in this type of writing, I would have preferred to see more of a stylistic difference between sections where the play was rooted in documentable fact and sections which are informed conjecture or pure speculation. Jonathan achieves this (I think) really well in the book, but onstage it might have been managed better.

Callow held the stage with tremendous power. His naturally affable style worked well for the basic tone of the play, which turned an informative lecture into a convivial chat with your favourite uncle. Tom Cairns’s simple direction had Callow sitting on a stage with a raised platform on which stood evocative objects – a globe, a mobile etc. The focus was on Callow throughout, with lighting shifts occasionally altering the mood at times of tragedy or hope.

One purpose of the production was to give Callow the opportunity to try out several of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, moving from playing Romeo and Juliet to Thomas More to Henry V to Prospero to Puck. The only weakness was in the Romeo section, where Callow performed the balcony scene with himself in a frenetic way that mocked the characters too openly. However, his Cockney Bottom, his pompous Falstaff and his dignified Lear were all wonderful and varied. I’m not a huge fan of the one-man show format, but Callow brought to life a range of characters that, even outside of their dramatic contexts, gave a sense of the sheer variety within Shakespeare’s canon.

I’m hoping the play continues to have an afterlife, and it’ll be interesting to see if it is brought into play as the authorship debate kicks off more in the next few months. It was a tour de force for Callow and a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare for those who have a sense of who the man was and want to know more.

Posted in Theatre review