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Review of Shakespeare’s Sister at The Courtyard Theatre

Shakespeare’s Sister - Photo credit Ali Wright
Shakespeare’s Sister – Photo credit Ali Wright

If you fancy you’re hearing strangely familiar echoes in the title of this play, don’t worry, you’re not losing the plot. There was – still is – a rock band bearing the same name, and it had a chart-topping hit called “Stay” in 1992.

Then there is the older, more relevant reference from Virginia Woolf’s 1929 set of feminist essays, A Room of One’s Own, in which she asks the reader to imagine what might have happened if Shakespeare had had a supremely gifted sister called, for example, Judith.

It is this proposition which Emma Whipday’s imaginative but well-grounded play sets out to explore. There was indeed a Judith in Shakespeare’s family, but this was one of his daughters. By giving him a sibling, Whipday taps in rewardingly to the human and dramatic potentials of rivalry, nepotism and the whole business of a woman cutting it in a man-lorded world. As she is well aware, Woolf’s use of the word Room is as much figurative as physical. And, like Woolf, Whipday and her Judith are begging for – or rather demanding – space.

This was harder in Judith’s day than it is in her creator’s, as the author acknowledges and as the presence of her play attests. There is modernity, or at least timelessness, in the plot. Judith’s and William’s father, John Shakespeare, is in debt, and looks to a lucrative engagement for his daughter. She responds by fleeing the coop with handsome young Ned Alleyn – yes, that Alleyn, as in the name of the famous south-east London school which he founded.

They head for London, intending to join William there. It doesn’t go well for her. Will is nowhere to be seen, Ned has a fiancée and there is a deep economic slump. Plus, because she’s a girl, no-one wants to read her play, and even if they did, they would assume that it was not really her own work but something she’d nicked from her brother. In this respect, her Judith’s fortunes are similar to those meted out by Woolf to her counterpart. But – big but – Woolf’s does away with herself after becoming pregnant by a theatre manager. Whipday has more ambitious plans for hers, which is good news for the play and for us, if not for her would-be oppressors.

By virtue of the heavy matter at its heart, Whipday’s own comedy is Shakespearian in purpose. How better to tilt at tyranny? Misogyny, for want of a worse word, is not merely a feature of social intercourse, we are reminded but enshrined in law, with the Master of the Revels proscribing work by female would-be dramatists. Whipday’s achievement is to present this world as a farce in its own right and to do so with a judicious blend of high-spirited wit and deep-running anger. She knows what she is talking about, having specialised in Shakespeare Studies, both as student and teacher, at Oxford University, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Shakespeare’s Globe. This play was a winner of the Masterclass 2015 Pitch Your Play Competition.

The Courtyard Theatre’s production does it proud, emphasising the story’s playful and picaresque qualities with an ebullient cast of twelve, but also visiting the literal and metaphorical dungeons of Judith’s quest with the
darkness they demand. Under the direction of Jake Smith, Natalie Capella gives an outstanding performance, rueful and reflective as her situation frequently requires, but never so caught up in her own struggle as to shun the sheer sitcom of it all.

To Connor Dawson falls the welcome burden of portraying the great Stratford scriptmaker. He wisely goes for the mode of plainness, allowing the reputation of these past four centuries to do the inaudible talking. The other good idea: make him just like his father John, and serve the notion by having the one actor take both the roles.

Good work from movement director Chris Cuming, whose routines enable the play to speak the physical language of revue when appropriate. Strong portrayals too from James Allbones as Alleyn, Jabari Ngozi as Philip Henslowe
(the Cameron Mackintosh of his day) and Jonelle Roberts as Dick Burbage (the Ian McKellen). Not forgetting Layla Morell’s Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son; hard to neglect the nice irony of a woman playing a boy in a world where the reverse was the norm.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Judith Shakespeare has one ambition: to be a playwright. When her debt-ridden father forces her into an engagement, she runs away with the help of dashing actor Ned Alleyn, hoping to join her brother in London. But when Judith arrives in the plague-stricken capital, she finds her brother gone, Ned engaged to another, and her play refused.

Judith and the players confront poverty in the midst of economic depression, in a society where women’s freedoms are curtailed, under a government confronting religious extremism in a climate of fear. Judith must choose between succumbing to social pressures, and following her dream, no matter what the cost.

Shakespeare’s Sister
29th May 2018 to 2nd June 2018 – 7:00PM


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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