Nearly 400 years after his death, we seem as taken as ever with the mysteries surrounding The Bard of Stratford. How did he die? Did he or didn’t he write the plays attributed to him? And, as Sebastian Michael’s new play, The Sonneteer, asks: what was the nature of the relationship between William Shakespeare, The Sonnets and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and sometime dedicatee of the playwright.
Weaving the tumultuous and completely speculative love story between Shakespeare and Wriothesley with a modern-day romance between a Shakespeare professor and his much younger student, The Sonneteer feels rather like the bastard love child of Shakespeare in Love and A.S. Byatt’s Possession – only with gentle men, of course. No room for lady loves here, which is perhaps unsurprising given that so many of the sonnets are addressed to a young man, fair as “beauty’s rose”.
Like all good post-modern revisionist history, the play’s apology is also its subtitle: “everything is conjecture except the words.” There’s no hard evidence of a relationship between Shakespeare and Wriothesley, nor indeed that the sonnets were in any way auto-biographical; but the poems, and their unusual approach to their subject (Sonnet 20 famously laments that the young man is not a woman), are certainly ripe for speculative fiction.
At heart, the story is simple and simply-told: two men play out the conjoined tales of lovers on a dark set bare except for a few black benches. Stage lights switch warm and cold between past and present day. Sebastian Michael, who takes the part of Shakespeare and his modern-day academic interpreter, is also the play’s penman; while young Tom Medcalf – making his Fringe debut – is Wriothesley as well as the beloved student.
While trying to piece together the mysteries of who the sonnets were written for and why, our present-day academic lovers meet, woo, quarrel and nearly-part, speaking all the while in economic prose. Their counterpoint scenes, set in Shakespeare’s time, act as an attempt to explain said mysteries and see our poor poet and his aristocratic lover enact a similar parabola-curve of a love affair, though here the words are taken almost exclusively from the sonnets themselves.
Both performances are competent, switching seamlessly between Michael’s prose and Shakespeare’s poetry – though the reoccurrence of a few overly-affected gestures (intended, I think, to signify a shift in the time period) and two ill-conceived and distracting props (small, perspex screens standing in for iPads in present and manuscripts in past) are inexplicable. Otherwise wisely stripped of artifice in its staging, what was most needed was greater chemistry between the two leads. For while, I’m perfectly happy to be swept away by conjecture, I didn’t believe the passion between this Shakespeare and his Wriothesley was enough to inspire sonnets.