I Am Shakespeare – September 2007


By: Mark Rylance (with adjustments by the rest of the cast)

Directed by: Mark Rylance and Matthew Warchus

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 4th September 2007

I found myself getting a bit negative in the early stages of this play. Mark Rylance has been working on Shakespeare’s plays for many years now, and became interested in the authorship question over those years. A professed agnostic himself, he believes it’s important for this question to be aired, and for the various pieces of evidence to be acknowledged and discussed, instead of covered up. Never having come across a serious argument against Will himself, I wasn’t perhaps as open-minded as I like to think at the start of this, but I grew into it. I’m still fine with Will being the man (I voted for him at the end), but I agree that studying a wider range of contemporaneous ideas can be useful in understanding the plays. However I still didn’t hear anything remotely convincing in any of the arguments put forward, so I can’t blame anyone who regards authorship questioners as Looney Tunes.

The Minerva theatre, lovely space that it is, had been taken over by Frank Charlton’s garage, a leaky den filled with Shakespearean authorship reference works. Frank hosts an internet chat show discussing the authorship question, with the only drawback being that nobody actually calls in to join the discussion. Apparently they did want the audience to ring in, but as no one told us not to switch off our mobiles, given how often we’ve been reminded to do that very thing, very few people actually realised we could phone in if we wanted, so no calls tonight. Other than the planned ones, that is.

Barry is Frank’s mate and musical director for the show, and to help his friend he pretends to be Derek Jacobi phoning in, but got the accent wrong by a few hundred miles. Everything’s going as badly as usual, until the bad weather and the internet combine to bring Shakespeare’s ghost into the garage. Dressed as a large tomato (I’m kidding – his red outfit was just a bit big, that’s all), he reads minds, writes a sonnet on the fly-leaf of Frank’s Complete Works, and heads off to the kitchen for some beer. To help us hear the arguments for a number of possible contenders we also get to meet Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, and Mary Sidney, so the garage became quite crowded. Eventually, after Barry and Will came back from the pub, they open up the garage door, and the audience becomes the neighbours who’ve also come back from the pub. The various characters came out and chatted with us, trying to muster support – Will was totally sozzled, and sitting on the stairs to our left, only popping up occasionally to make some witty comment. After that, we voted, and the alternatives got short shrift, with Will being the resounding victor – hooray!

There’s an argument between Barry and Frank, and as a result, the internet connection is shut off temporarily, and all the ghosts disappear off into the night. Frank thinks he’s got it all on tape, but he finds it didn’t record, and now he’s in despair. He wanted so badly to know who wrote Shakespeare’s works, and now he’s lost the people who could tell him ( they all refused to give him a direct answer earlier, always making suggestions, but never coming clean), and he has to face the possibility that Will did do it himself, after all. He’s in a bad way, and Barry’s left him (as did his wife some months earlier), but then he finds renewed hope in the concept of Shakespeare as being part of each one of us. The tape he was searching has the famous scene from Spartacus on it, and the play ends with Frank and Barry, and some brave folk in the audience, jumping up and saying “I am Shakespeare” in response to a question from a policeman (who’d been involved earlier when the Earl of Oxford got out of hand and who was persuaded by Mary Sidney that they were just rehearsing a play) about who was this Shakespeare fella? It was an uplifting ending, and a good way to unite everyone after the disagreements expressed earlier.

I did enjoy this play. There was plenty of humour – Will saying “God, I wish I’d kept better records” was a highlight – and the different characters came across very well, though I’m no expert. I did get the sense of how this question could take over people’s lives, and I’m determined not to get that deeply involved, as I don’t want to lose sight of the real objective – enjoying the plays themselves, regardless of who wrote them. But I still think that only an ordinary person from a relatively lowly background could have brought to life the ordinary folk in the plays, and given them such good parts.

It wasn’t the end of things, though, as we had a post-show to attend. I think this was about the most lively post-show discussion we’ve been to. There were plenty of comments and questions, and although we nearly got bogged down with one man’s opinions, on the whole it was a very interesting and wide-ranging chat. The cast had ended up doing a fair bit of research themselves, but without losing their sense of humour, so it was informative without being dogmatic. Some potential alternatives had been left out. Kit Marlowe, for example, had originally been envisaged as a dead body lying outside the garage, but eventually disappeared, as there was too much material to include everything. This was just a taster. The costumes were amazing (I managed to insult the Earl of Oxford by asking him why he was dressed like a bumble bee!) and had apparently cost thousands of pounds to make in splendid period detail. Barry’s costume cost £48.50. Money well spent, Barry.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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