27 November 2022
I AM SHAKESPEARE (Old Vic) Review
This was a one-off event to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust–an organisation that was set up to do research and seek out evidence that would help us work out whether the literary works attributed to William Shakespeare were, in fact, written by a random guy from Stratford or whether the was just the front for the works of other person(s).
The play itself was authored by Mark Rylance and had a proper run in Chichester in 2007. This, however, was a staged script-in-hand reading of the play rather than a proper full-on staging. There were also some costumes on display, a bit of educational info before each act, and a really touching surprise tribute to Derek Jacobi (who was in the audience) at the end of the show. As far as an event goes, this was really a top-notch celebration.
As for the play itself, it’s a bit more complicated. The premise is fairly simple: school teacher Frank (Mark Rylance) runs an internet chat show about Shakespeare from his garage aided by his neighbour Barry (Sean Foley). Through the magic of internet, William Shakspar (Colin Hurley), Francis Bacon (Mark Gatiss), Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (David Conrad), and Lady Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke (Juliet Rylance) all spontaneously materialise in Frank’s garage to plead the case that each of them is responsible, individually or collectively, for the works attributed to William Shakespeare. The cast also included Sam Parks as a local police officer and Annabel Leventon as the narrator.
The first act is fairly slow and somewhat self-indulgent. The set-up is a bit long, and jokes are a tad flat. I suspect this might be due, at least in part, to being a staged reading rather than a visual production in which one can get absorbed. The second half is far more interesting and fast-paced. The policeman character feels like an afterthought. He is an external (perhaps even objective) bystander with no stake in the authorship question, but I think all his “insights” could’ve been realised by the rest of the characters without him. Rylance himself is fantastic as hapless Frank whose obsession with Shakespeare cost him his marriage. As Frank changes his mind over and over again, Rylance tries to make us feel the full impact of Frank’s despair, but it’s a tall ask because the play doesn’t (and cannot) provide any actual answers. Foley, Gatiss, and Hurley are very watchable, but do get somewhat boring in places given that they just stand in front of microphones. Conrad, who I’d never seen on stage before, was suitably impressive in his righteous indignation, and his passion came across far more “acted” than the aforementioned three. Juliet Rylance was the weakest link in this ensemble. With flat delivery and flubbed lines, she wasn’t putting forward a good case for her character having had a hand in the writings in question.
On balance, the ending feels rather anticlimactic: the characters disappear just as they appeared, leaving behind some information, but no answers. On the one hand, the history is represented more accurately this way. On the other hand, given that this is a play and not an academic paper, perhaps this is Rylance just playing it safe so not to upset the apple cart. I do agree with him on one thing: wherever one falls in the debate of Shakespearean authorship, everyone should be able to discuss their views as calm and rational adults without dragging the “non-believers” through the mud.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £10 + £3 for the Derek Jacobi loveliness at the end of the show.
Bonus: At one point, toward the end of the play, there was a bit of audience participation: the cast went around the auditorium with microphones asking individual patrons their thoughts on who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Most people had nothing interesting or clever or entertaining to say (well represented by the guy who yelled “who cares!” from the dress circle). One guy grabbed the mic and went on somewhat incoherently for full 2 minutes about how badly women characters are written. But the absolute winner for me was a guy from the back of the stalls who yelled out, “The Royal Bacon Company doesn’t have the same ring to it!” Bravo, good sir, bravo…