On a three-month national tour, Simon Callows entertaining and informative one-man Shakespeare show now hits London after a spell at Edinburgh Festival.
A mixture of biography, history and quotation, Shakespeare: The Man fromStratford aims to shed light on the personality of this notoriously elusiveplaywright in the context of the society in which he flourished, by means of a livelynarrative and acting out excerpts from his plays and poems.
The author of the piece, Jonathan Bate, is an eminent Shakespearean scholarwho was chief editor of the RSCs edition of the Complete Works. Batesprogramme notes state: He shows us what it is to be human. But what was it likebeing Shakespeare? An ambitious goal indeed considering that we have alimited amount of information about the Bards private life and that his amazinglychameleon ability to submerge himself in the lives of his characters means that theauthor seems almost invisible. If some of the links Bate makes between incidents inthe plays and Shakespeares own experiences are tenuous, it still makes fascinatingspeculation.
The structure of the show is based on Jaquess famous Seven Ages of Manspeech in As You Like It. So we follow Shakespeares life from being borninto a middle-class family in Stratford in 1564, to clever grammar-schoolboy andhasty marriage at 18 when getting his girlfriend pregnant. After making his fame andfortune in London as an actor-playwright-manager, he returns to his home town inretirement as a considerable property-owner before dying suddenly at the age of 52.There are many gaps in the story but the overall impression is of a fairly ordinary manwith an extraordinary imagination.
Wearing a black velvet suit, Callow easily holds our attention throughout thetwo hours traffic on stage. Though he has performed in relatively few Shakespeareproductions, he clearly feels a great empathy for the language and seizes theopportunity of playing about 50 cameo roles with relish. There are few actors whohave Callows talent for assuming such a variety of vocal styles, and almost like animpressionist he reels off in quick succession male, female and childrens charactersfrom both Romeo and Juliet, to Hamlet, Falstaff and Prospero. Even if some of theperformances are a bit over the top they are always engaging.
Tom Cairnss fluid direction ensures that the commentary and dramatic strands ofthe show are seamlessly interwoven, so that the story keeps its momentum. The set byJeremy Herbert includes a simple stage with a few props such as a paper crown, a toysword and a mechanical dog suggesting a childs make-believe, plus still and movingimages on a screen, while the lighting of David Howe and the music and sound ofBen and Max Ringham add to the magical atmosphere.
Even if Shakespeares inner life remains shadowy, this show is full of interest,often amusing and occasionally moving. Though not as satisfying as Callows superbone-man Dickens show a few years ago, Shakespeare: The Man from Stratford certainly puts an intriguingly personal perspective on some of the most celebratedscenes from world drama.