It is probably best that I dispel now any confusion by saying that this is not, in fact, two hours of Simon Callow being Shakespeare. It is a narrative in which Callow explains what we know and can reasonably suppose about the mysterious life of Mr. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon from his humble beginnings in the backwater Warwickshire town to his living the high-life as one of London’s elite, popular among both the nobles of the court and the commoners of the street.
The narrative itself is expertly woven from birth to death by Jonathan Bate, following the seven stages of man that Shakespeare himself outlined in As You Like It, so that it gives a solid and easy to understand pattern to the story. It is a magnificent script, delving into the history of the man himself with such startling clarity that it feels authoritative, mixing the fact and supposition about the unknown years of his life with snippits and gobbits from his work. When opening the second act, for example, a rendition of the famous Henry V speech ‘once more unto the breach’ leads not only into the second act but the fourth age, the soldier, as well.
The ease with which Bate weaves the words of Shakespeare into the story of his life is truly remarkable and seems effortless. Bate himself is, unsurprisingly, a Shakespeare scholar, having written a number of books on the swan of Avon and been the chief editor for the RSC edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He has the background, then, to make this seem natural and working with genius such as that of Shakespeare one can feasibly imagine the hardest part being the choice of what to draw upon and include. The various events that plagued Shakespeare himself, such as the black death, were given due significance as this show achieved something that I have not seen before in any explanation of the bard’s life. It pieced together events in his life and the work he was producing and made an educated guess as to how he would have felt, what motivated him to change his style or why he chose to write about war and honour. It made Shakespeare a person as opposed to a historical figure for study.
The main contributory factor to the personal nature of the show itself was not the script, but the actor at the centre of it all. Simon Callow pulled off what is an extraordinary performance as the shifting voice on stage, moving seamlessly from narrator to character no matter what the scene would be. His performances as all the characters from Bottom to Juliet are engaging and many are powerfully emotive as just as many are funny and light-hearted.
Humour is a large part of the show. There is a large amount of densely packed information delivered at once at many points throughout and Callow is able to offset this marvelously with some well-timed jokes about life way back when and life now and how the two compare. Having lived in Stratford-upon-Avon myself for a period I can say that from what Callow was telling us of Shakespeare’s day it hasn’t changed all that much! The sheer number of characters that Callow portrays is staggering, and all are brilliantly constructed in their fine simplicity.
Callow’s delivery is near-faultless. There were a few line stumbles but all of which were rapidly corrected and bearing in mind that the entire show is him talking for two hours (and it is a very wordy script, then dotted with bits of Shakespeare) I think the occasional line slip is forgivable. His mastery of the language, the script and his wonderful ability to shift both slowly and suddenly between moods and perspectives makes it far more entertaining than many would believe it has a right to be. I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job than Callow has done here, bringing Shakespeare to life without ever being Shakespeare.
I particularly liked the inclusion of the reality of fairies and goblins for children growing up in the countryside and the mystery of the now dispatched forest of Arden. It gave not only a childish beginning that instantly and obviously captivated the imagination of the entire audience but it gave a wonderfully imaginative place to return to, much as Shakespeare himself did, at the end.
Imagination was also a huge aspect of the set. Simple and enchanting in its own way it sported very little by way of anything much. There were a couple of trees, some chairs, books, a globe, a sword and a couple of dramatic holes in the floor and walls that threw out light and flames when bidden to do so. It was simple but wonderfully effective. With the addition of plain and brief sound effects, such as a beating drum during a Henry V speech and some subtly maneuvered lighting changes the stage itself appeared to have a character akin to the man himself, transforming when bidden from Lear to Prospero amid others.
The show itself is a masterclass in simplicity and good acting, the result being a show that is both absorbing and entertaining, completely immersing you in the world and the mind of Shakespeare, which is exhilarating in itself never mind that it’s Simon Callow on stage proving his credentials once again. If you have even a passing interest in Shakespeare (which I would argue everyone should, but then, I’m biased) this is simply unmissable. If you don’t have an interest in Shakespeare, this will garner one. Simple and simply unmissable.
Written by Jonathan Bate; Directed by Tom Cairns; At Trafalgar Studios, Studio 1; Starring Simon Callow; Runs from 15 June 11 - 23 July 11.
John Ord (05/07/2011)