The play Will about young William Shakespeare between 1585 and 1593 and the venue, The Rose Playhouse just around the corner from The Globe, complement each other. The Rose is the perfect setting to watch this play. I got a real sense of history and tradition. This was a theatre that Shakespeare himself had been associated with.
Sitting amidst the archaeological footprints of this Elizabethan theatre is both profoundly moving and meaningful. But more than that the intimacy of the performance space, 30 metres by 10 metres, means that the audience and actors are within touching distance. It makes for a unique and fascinating experience. The nearest we can get to time travel. But it’s not just the history and intimacy of this unique space it’s the quality of the show. Everything about this show shouts top draw, top quality, top stuff. It is written and directed by Victoria Baumgartner. She has written an engrossing play which over the course of eighty minutes (eight years in eighty minutes) does what Lord Reith declared ought to be the mission of the BBC: to inform, educate and entertain. She also has a director’s instinct. She applies Ockham’s Razor with decisive certainty to cut out the unnecessary and keep the action moving so that we are never looking at our watch. On the contrary, she leaves us wanting more. As Einstein remarked an hour with a beautiful woman feels like five minutes. This eighty minutes with Will & Compagnie felt likewise. If you want more from the remarkable Victoria Baumgartner you can see her acting in the French language version of Will on the 14-15 April.
There are strong performances from all five actors. Sam Veck as young Will looks very convincing with his long hair and beard. In a brilliant use of props, he has a quill tucked into the lower left pocket of his waistcoat. So we know who he is. We meet Will as a young man in Stratford in 1585. He’s 21. He wants to be a poet but has some problems. A job teaching Ovid at Stratford Grammar school, no money, a young wife Anne (Katherine Moran ) who utters the two words every young man fears more than any other “I’m pregnant” and then the just the one word “Again”, writers block, the anxiety of influence (in his case Ovid looms large), in love with the rich and powerful nobleman the Earl Of Southampton, (Charlie Woodward). And in trouble for poaching. So he’s in a spot of bother. The play turns on how Will overcomes these obstacles to become the writer William Shakespeare.
A key moment is the transition away from reliance on the court in the form of writing for the Earl of Southampton and instead, writing for a paying audience in a theatre. Crucial to this realization are Richard Burbage (Ronnie Yorke) and Olivia Burbage (Beatrice Lawrence). They show Will the way. They inspire him into realising that the theatre is limitless, that you can do anything in the theatre. In a phrase that all the worlds a stage. Ronnie Yorke is superb. With his swept-back hair and well-cut beard, he looks every inch the Elizabethan actor. He uses the braces on his trousers to provocative effect taking them off and putting them on as he interacts with the audience. Olivia Burbage is strictly speaking a fictional character but for me, she works. It’s convincing that Burbage had a sister who disguised herself to act on the all-male Elizabethan stage. When she voices her frustrations about not being allowed to act I understood more deeply the injustice women felt, still feel, about discrimination on stage. And that’s the point about this play. It brings all these issues alive before our eyes in ways that reading about them just can’t match. Together the Burbage’s knock Will into shape. They tell him to get over his writer’s block and find the words. They give him a deadline and tell him to forget about Ovid and write for the stage. After initial doubts and much agonising Will overcomes his demons and starts writing.
One device used several times during the play is a couple dancing. It’s first used to show Will and Anne falling in love. Playing on the idea of the chase Will and Anne weave in and out of each other’s reach until finally embracing. It’s subtle and affecting. Even more so when the dance is between Will and the Earl of Southampton. It’s very beautifully choreographed. And brought home to me the reality of Shakespeare’s bisexuality. Where the dance idea doesn’t come off is when Will dances by himself with a box. I know it was meant to portray his inner struggles and agonising but I thought it just looked naff and a soliloquy would be more suitable?
A wonderful play in a unique venue. I loved it and would gladly go again. That’s always my test of a play. Would I go again? Yes, yes, yes!
Review by John O’Brien
England, 1585. The young Will Shakespeare is living in the peaceful town of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the heart of England with his newlywed wife, Anne. But something’s missing. He’s dreaming of prophecies, rough magic and words no one is able to find.
As he starts following these dreams, life takes him on a journey, from under the protection of an immensely rich Lord to nights in brawl taverns with travelling actors. But Elizabethan England is not an easy place to thrive…
Find out the story of how Will became William Shakespeare through this play bursting with echoes to his future works, in between fantasies and reality.
Sam Veck – William Shakespeare
Katherine Moran – Anne Shakespeare
Beatrice Lawrence – Olivia Burbage
Ronnie Yorke – Richard Burbage
Charlie Woodward – Earl of Southampton / Christopher Marlowe / Gravedigger
Léa Fanchon – Music and Singing
WILL OR EIGHT LOST YEARS OF YOUNG WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S LIFE – BY VICTORIA BAUMGARTNER
March 27, 2018 – April 21, 2018