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Theatre review: Shakespeare The Man From Stratford/ Liverpool Playhouse

Simon Callow is mesmerising as the Bard, says Philip Key

Published on June 17th 2010.


Theatre review: Shakespeare The Man From Stratford/ Liverpool Playhouse

IN this new production, Simon Callow once more goes it alone following the success of his one man opus, The Mystery of Charles Dickens. This time he is telling the life story of Shakespeare.

If only every schoolchild studying Shakespeare could have the benefit of a Callow in the classroom, how much more fun it would be for them

But it is more than a one man play, it is very much a one man show with Callow as a theatrical showman.

Liverpool is just the second date on his tour, so it’s all very new and rather exciting.

With a script by former Liverpool University lecturer Jonathan Bate – now a respected Shakespeare biographer and editor of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Shakespeare: The Complete Works – we are in safe hands as far as the facts are concerned.

But this is his first play if one discounts a student effort 30 years ago and it could have gone horribly wrong – academics are not always good playwrights.

In the event it works beautifully thanks to Callow’s mesmerising stage presence and Bate’s determination to entertain as well as instruct.

This is not a lecture but a show with stage effects, dramatic lighting, sounds, a screen, flames – and a toy dog.

Director Tom Cairns makes certain that there is plenty on stage to catch the eye as well as the ear.

But, above all, there is Callow with his perfect vowels, actor’s voice with just a touch of the ham in it and ability to hold an audience.

The tale of Shakespeare’s life is told using a well-tried format, the seven ages of man speech by Jaques from As You Like It, the one that starts with “All the world’s a stage” and goes on to describe a man’s life from the “mewling and puking” infant to the the old man in “second childishness” facing “mere oblivion...”

Corny that may be, but it works well as Callow strides the stage telling stories of Shakespeare’s childhood – he began work in his father’s business making gloves – to his marriage at 18 and eventually his move to London where he found fame as a writer and quite a fortune too, buying property and land.

Of course there are plenty of extracts from the Bard’s work along the way illustrating how his life was mirrored in his writing. There were his deeply felt love sonnets and powerful speeches which sprang from his education in Latin and interest in the law.

Callow is also able to conjure up the sounds and sights of London along with its smell of open sewers and “the stench of rotting corpses” during the plague years.

Dressed in an open neck white shirt and grey trousers, he performs some of Shakespeare’s great characters including Mark Antony’s oration in Julius Caesar (“Friends, Romans, countrymen...”) and Macbeth’s plaintive “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death...”

Designer Jeremy Herbert has created a two-tier mini stage on the real stage, one covered in books, a mobile, toys, a world globe and that toy dog which makes a comic appearance in a monologue about tearful partings.

A flap also opens to reveal a blazing fire and later some dramatic underlighting.

Writer Bate injects a few modern references, suggesting for example that Shakespeare’s father was for a while a “big cheese” in Stratford and that his financial woes, caused by unreturned loans, was an early example of the credit crunch.

While there are some startling anecdotes like actors dismantling a 3,000 seater theatre in one night, Shakespeare’s entry into the world of writing is quickly glossed over. One minute he is looking after horses at a theatre – an Elizabethan form of valet-parking Callow suggests – and the next working on plays.

So there are a few gaps and parts of Shakespeare’s life that remain hidden, but The Man From Stratford still offers a remarkably full portrait of our greatest writer.

Callow’s one man show reveals as much of the man as we can decently expect and it is also highly entertaining. If only every schoolchild studying Shakespeare could have the benefit of a Callow in the classroom, how much more fun it would be for them.

9/10

*Shakespeare The Man From Stratford runs at the Liverpool Playhouse until June 19.

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