Sunday, August 15, 2010

Edinburgh Fringe - Simon Callow in Shakespeare the Man From Stratford

I’m not sure when I became so fascinated with Shakespeare. Certainly not in school. But somewhere in the last few years it happened with a vengeance.

I saw Simon Callow’s show on Friday, Shakespeare the Man From Stratford, and was completely riveted. It doesn’t hurt that he has made his show enormously accessible to just about everyone.

He tells the story of Shakespeare’s life – or, his interpretation of it, I should say – framed by the seven ages of man from the speech ‘All the World’s a Stage’. He uses text from the plays and sonnets – beautifully and clearly acted - to illustrate his points. When discussing Shakespeare’s childhood at his mother’s skirts, for example, we had scenes from The Winter’s Tale, Queen Hermione talking to her young son Mamillius, with Simon Callow acting all the parts.

I particularly enjoyed his take on Shakespeare’s life. He is firmly in the Shakespeare was Shakespeare camp. He posits that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, not for money or because she was pregnant (although she undoubtedly was), but for love. That during the ‘lost years’ Shakespeare was living quietly in Stratford trying to support his family. That he left for London to find a job to be able to support them. That his parting from them was heartbreaking.

And then, arriving in London, a boy from the sticks, he would have ended up in the taverns alongside boatloads of immigrants from Europe and Africa – plenty of fodder and inspiration in that company.

In need of money, Shakespeare couldn’t have taken a traditional job, which would have required a seven-year unpaid apprenticeship, and so he turned to a new industry, still unregulated: the theatre. He began as an ostler outside the theatre, as Simon Callow put it, valet-parking the patrons’ horses, but then gradually began to get to know the players. He worked backstage and then onstage, and also as a sort of script doctor, working with a group of others to patch up old plays. And, eventually, he began writing his own.

One of the most interesting bits to me was Simon Callow’s examination of Shakespeare’s school-boy life. To those who think that Shakespeare could not have written as he did without a university education, he pointed out that education at that time was heavily based in grammar and rhetoric. He used a sequence of different texts to illustrate all the techniques Shakespeare was using that he would have learned as part of that curriculum.

The second act covered the adult years of Shakespeare’s life, living and writing in London, buying and selling property, then his gradual ‘retirement’, and then his death. It was still interesting and very well-played, but had less in it that felt new to me.

Though he brushed against it, Simon Callow didn’t retread any of the ground covered in There Reigns Love, his sonnets play. There’s nothing in either to refute the other, though, and I’m happy to have seen both. There are similarities in structure and staging that I quite enjoyed.

All of it, of course, is still speculation in the end, since we have so few concrete facts about Shakespeare's life. As I mentioned, text from the plays and sonnets was interwoven and acted out as illustration, not as evidence. The thing with Shakespeare is, though, that he wrote about such a wide range of experience that you can use his text to support almost any theory.

As far as theories go, I do like this one. It has made him seem the most human. Just a man, who loved his family, and in trying to support them discovered his incredible genius.

In terms of the production itself... Simon Callow was, of course, wonderful. The set was minimal, as were the props, and both were used well. There was an effective use of lighting to create mood and space. I liked the actual roaring fire that made a couple of appearances, too. As with so many shows I’ve seen this year, there was a projection element with some evocative images, although in this case it was unnecessary, really, since I never took my eyes off Simon Callow.

Wonderful show. Absolutely worth seeing, whether you care about Shakespeare or not.

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