It is very rare for a student to walk out of university after a day of lectures to find herself in yet another lecture, apparently moved to Theatre Royal due to the finding of an “unexploded device” on campus. Here I am then, sitting in the small Studio Room, listening to Professor Oliver Nother’s lecture (PowerPoint mishaps included) on the Shakespearian authorship dilemma – clearly supporting Edward de Vere as Shakespeare’s true identity. However, this is clearly no lecture, but the one-man play scripted and acted by Nicholas Collett, with Gavin Robertson as director.
Just as the first performance of Your Bard began, I shall offer a brief summary of what the theory of Shakespearian authorship is for the sake of all those readers who might have not come across this term before. The theory holds that the name “Shakespeare” with which some of history’s most beautiful plays and sonnets have been signed is nothing more than a front, a fake identity, with which someone else secretly published their works. Prof. Nother introduced to the audience what he calls the “usual suspects” – Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere – stating the pros and cons of attributing Shakespearian authorship to each of them, before thanking the audience for the attention and inviting everyone to join him and his colleagues to the drinks reception in the foyer.
If it is rare to find oneself in a lecture outside the usual 9am-6pm schedule, it is even rarer to see same actor/writer set up an apparently inexpungable argument against Shakespeare’s authorship to then completely debunk it posing as (our) bard himself – and indeed a pleasant surprise. No later than fifteen minutes, here comes Shakespeare himself, ready to ardently defend his own role as artist and playwright.
The small stage made Shakespeare’s retelling of his own career very personal and intimate, so that it felt more like a sincere, informal discussion about how he had come about dominating the world of theatre than a scripted play. Not only the stage, but also the calling of some spectators to play the parts of his mother, father, and wife favoured the creation of a warm sense of intimacy which is rarely attained in traditional performances.
Using nothing more than a chair, a wound-up scroll, a tankard, and a pair of gloves – the same minimalistic props the traveling companies Shakespeare initially worked in used for their plays – Collett recreates a striking portrayal of Elizabethan England, and specifically of London, through the power of words alone, just as Shakespeare could transport his audience to foreign and made-up lands with his plays. And suddenly, the Studio is now Stratford-upon-Avon, now a carriage on the move, now the Globe’s own stage – and we, the groundlings.
What I have appreciated most of Collett’s rendition of the Bard is the striking humanity Will Shakespeare is infused with, making him more a man than a character in a play. Collett almost literally takes us by the hand and offers his audience a full excursus of Shakespeare’s life and career, and how they influenced one another to ultimately create the legend we know today. Comedy, deeper and darker feelings, and good old history blend perfectly together to offer the picture of a man, of human being like us. The Bard in front of us shares with his audience small anecdotes from his life, like his first introduction to theatre when he was only a, awe-struck six-year-old boy sitting between his father’s legs so close to the stage he could feel the actors’ breaths, or the prank errands the older members of the traveling company he had just joined sent him on, or even the drunken nights spent in pubs with his fellow actors and the pure excitement of walking into London as if it were modern-day Hollywood or Broadway. He confesses his youthful insecurity as the newbie among the accomplished playwrights, but does not hide his admiration and utter euphoria upon “having a drink with bloody Christopher Marlowe” for the first time and henceforth kick-starting a secret, playful competition between the two of them for the title of best playwright. Will – because, by now, we are friends and honorifics have been abandoned – then confides in us his haunting fear of death and loss, showing his tears upon recounting first his son’s, and then his father’s deaths, thus revealing how these shocking experiences led him to a change in his writing style: he realises that plays should not explain but spur thought in the audience, that what is unsaid is more interesting than what it is said, leading to the birth of works like Othello and Hamlet; his desire to “right the wrongs” of his life in his final years led, instead, to plays concerned with redemption and salvation, such as The Tempest and “A Winter’s Tale.
No doubt: Collett has succeeded in humanising Shakespeare, a figure so often thickly shrouded in awe and unreachable creative genius. On Collett’s stage, William Shakespeare has truly become “our” bard, the bard of the people and a bard among people – all thanks to our modern playwright’s at times comical, at times deep and moving, but always original and fond rendition of him. His very personal interpretation of the Bard reminds us, in Macbeth’s words, how everyone is fated to be forgotten… “unless you are William bloody Shakespeare,” of course. But certainly, this heartfelt letter from the Bard to us, sprung from Nicholas Collett’s creative genius, will not empty its place among my memories anytime soon.
… In the end, though, did Shakespeare actually write his plays? Well – you’ll have to go and see it for yourself.