From screaming infant to disintegrating half-man in his dotage, Being Shakespeare traces the Bard through Jacques’ famous arc, illuminating the life, if not always the texts, of the great dramatist. To cut straight through potential confusion, Being Shakespeare is not Simon Callow’s second one-man Shakespeare of the year, but a welcome and refined return for his 2010 Edinburgh Fringe hit Shakespeare – The Man from Stratford. More re-badging than reimagining, Simon Callow’s one-man lecture cum greatest hits package remains an enthralling production.
The design has been wisely stripped down from its Edinburgh incarnation, though until the stage holds nothing but Callow and perhaps a stool, it will always feel superfluous. Likewise, the sound design by Ben and Max Ringham has been turned down and now sounds rather embarrassed to be there; as well it might be, the decision to add reverb to Callow’s voice during key speeches is absurd.
Undaunted by this meddling, Callow strides through a potted history of Shakespeare’s life which is sprinkled with broadly apposite quotes like an undergraduate literature essay. An anecdote of Shakespeare as precocious child? Throw in a dash of Mamillius from The Winter’s Tale. The young man meets his future wife? The balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet is surely perfect. It should feel ridiculous, but Jonathan Bate’s text is so rich in detail and so well balanced that it holds together admirably. Callow is a perfect match for it, and wisely retains a level of gravitas and formality which gives the performance the air of a wonderful childhood drama lesson with one’s favourite teacher.
Bate’s text is at its best when invoking a living reality of the period, and of situating that most canonical of authors in a world of men and not letters. Many of the anecdotes will be familiar to most, but historical details are well selected and there are several moments in which the gap of centuries is spectacularly telescoped. Shakespeare’s contribution to Sir Thomas More, in which he lambasts those who would turn on immigrants as the cause of social ills, is electrifying.
Unfortunately, the excerpts from Shakespeare’s work themselves are less successful. Callow has no time or space to build to the greater soliloquies, and though moments such as his turn as Falstaff are comically satisfying, many others fall flat. Seemingly aware of this problem with the form, Bate spends little time on Shakespeare’s triumphant mid-period: there is little from Hamlet, and not a single word from Othello. Given the time and detail lavished upon his childhood, it almost feels that an act has been snipped from the middle. Despite these flaws, the very fact that what is essentially a two-hour lecture can leave you wanting more is a considerable tribute.