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A CurtainUp London Review
by Tim Newns
Parodying Jacques "Seven ages of Man" speech from As You Like It, we are taken through Shakespeare's own 'seven ages' using them as the architectural 'mainframe' of the play. Infancy, schoolboy and lover, we are guided from his middle class birth in Stratford-upon-Avon to his grammar school days and then whirlwind marriage to Ann Hathaway. From then it is now the Shakespeare most will know, as a large proportion of his canon of sonnets, poems and plays are explored providing the audience with the edifying pleasure of determining from which of his works our protagonist Simon Callow is delving into. The play, as does the famous speech, culminates in old age and 'second childishness', and so we hear of Shakespeare's death on or around his 52nd birthday.
Right at the start we are reminded of the tremendous impact Shakespeare had on the contemporary world. For example, how he invented a good many of the words of the English language we use today. Callow then takes us through the stages of his life, flipping back and forth as narrator and actor, using monologues or scenes from his plays to emulate moments of his life. Callow 'the narrator' takes us through the fictional and non-fictional scenes with glowing curiosity. There are facts about his life that one imagines not even the most avid theatre goer knows and I was particular surprised to hear about Shakespeare's time as a glove maker, keeping his bankrupt father from bringing the family into shame.
Callow is the perfect orator, and his didactic approach keeps the audience's interest at a high level. His ability to jump from one character to the next and his skill at immediately setting the tone of the play are both impressive. One particular moment of triumph is his rendition of Anthony's "Brutus is an honourable man" speech from Julius Caesar. Callow has undertaken quite a mammoth job and maintains a mesmerising performance.
The platform on which this life story is so eloquently played upon is relatively bare, allowing the language and rhetoric of Shakespeare's work to truly take centre stage. Tom Cairns's direction and design is humbling in its respect to Jonathan Bates's writing and that deserves recognition. With the addition of a few props, the setting of each play we visit, is emphasised by the atmospheric music and sound of Ben and Max Ringham. It is easy to take the technical elements of a relatively simple production for granted but Bruno Poet's lighting design is as much a star of the piece. The interchanges of mood are lit with boldness and gravitas and Poet's lighting certainly helps to relocate our imagination at regular intervals.
The programme notes touch on the big question of authorship so it is interesting that this is not referred to in the play. However, it doesn't really matter as this is a play that celebrates not just the man but also the language of the time and surely even the most ardent conspiracy theorists should enjoy this interpretation of his life and his work.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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