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The Book of Will at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

John Heminges (Russell Richardson) and Henry Condell (Bill Ward) are in a pub, expressing dissatisfaction (to put it mildly) at a performance of Hamlet they had just witnessed. It was too hammy, and many of the lines were delivered from an inaccurate script. It was nothing like the sort of show The King’s Men, the acting company to whom they belong, would put on: their number also included Richard Burbage (Zach Lee), who doesn’t get much stage time on account of his untimely death, and William Shakespeare, who has already joined that great ensemble in the sky. There are, to this day, a lot of productions of Shakespeare plays in any given season – but you’d usually struggle to find very many that are about him.

L-R Carrie Quinlan, Bill Ward -The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson – Photo by Pamela Raith.
L-R Carrie Quinlan, Bill Ward -The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson – Photo by Pamela Raith.

At face value, it’s more than a little odd that a show about Shakespeare doesn’t even feature him on stage. On the other hand, it makes reasonable sense, as it is his plays that he is renowned for. This show keenly explores the arguments about what Shakespeare ‘actually’ wrote, and in this briskly paced production, it’s all there: the compositor (that is, typesetter) who has his own opinion on both editorial decisions and a few of the plays themselves. Indeed, the entire process by which Shakespeare’s First Folio came to be published in 1623 is set out – with Ralph Crane (Tomi Ogbaro), a fan of The King’s Men and particularly of the Bard, having, as this play would have it, the largest individual collection of scripts from which he, Heminges and Condell would use to produce the Folio.

This could, therefore, have been quite a laborious theatrical experience, as even in the early seventeenth century there were issues pertaining to what would now be called copyright. Plot twists and a committed cast combine to create something surprisingly gripping for a show essentially about publishing a book. Andrew Whitehead’s Ben Jonson is so bombastic I couldn’t help but think of Brian Blessed, and while the character is naturally wordy, this production cuts him off at the perfect moment – that is, when his eulogy of Burbage, printed on a scroll so long it rolls down to the floor, is about to be read out.

Presented as an ‘in the round’ production, I would frankly feel rather short-changed if I’d sat on stage – it was a rare thing, from my vantage point, to be looking at the back of a character whilst they spoke upstage. Anyway, the key test is whether prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays is needed – I would argue it isn’t, though those who do can have much fun working out what lines are from what plays in a suitably dramatic final scene, when the Folio comes to life in a blisteringly kaleidoscopic compilation of famed lines and costumes, with characters entering and exiting at seemingly ever-greater speed. The point about the canon of Shakespeare being “acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown” (Julius Caesar, Act II Scene II) is made perfectly.

This play will have detractors – it is unlikely that every detail is wholly and entirely historically accurate. That doesn’t stop this production from providing some engaging insights into life as it might have been like for The King’s Men. The moral dilemma Heminges and Condell face when it becomes clear William Jaggard (also Lee), a distrusted and disliked printer, is (apparently) the only one prepared to take on what was at the time a mammoth task of publishing ‘all’ of Shakespeare’s plays in a single volume, is a case in point. A lot of grit, determination and love comes to light in this lively and charming production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

This wonderfully witty, funny and fast-paced play tells the story of The King’s Men as they band together for a near-impossible plan – to collect all of Shakespeare’s plays and compile the First Folio. No easy feat, and what follows is a bonkers race against time through 1620s London.

Jessica Ellis – Alice Heminges/ Susannah Shakespeare
Zach Lee – Richard Burbage/William Jaggard
Tomi Ogbaro – Ralph Crane / Barman / Compositor / Francisco
Helen Pearson – Rebecca Heminges / Anne Hathaway Shakespeare / Horatio
Carrie Quinlan – Elizabeth Condell / Emilia Bassai Lanier / Fruit Seller / Marcellus
Russell Richardson – John Heminges
Callum Sim – Ed Knight / Issac Jaggard
Tarek Slater – Marcus / Boy Hamlet / Crier / Bernardo
Bill Ward – Henry Condell
Andrew Whitehead – Ben Jonson / Barman 2 / Sir Edward Dering

Creative team
Lauren Gunderson – Writer
Lotte Wakeham – Director
Carla Goodman – Designer
Simeon Miller – Lighting Designer
Andy Graham – Sound Designer
Jonnie Riordian – Movement Director
Olivia Barr – Casting Director
Natalie Grady – Accent Coach
Ryan McVeigh – Assistant Director
Nqozi Ugochukwu – Observer Director

The Book of Will
27 Apr – 13 May

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