Way back in #Lockdown1, Andrew Lloyd Webber put up a number of his musicals for a limited time on a site called The Shows Must Go On. This not to be confused with The Show Must Go Online which is a project to work through the entire Shakespeare canon in chronological order. The Shows Must Go On returned a few weeks ago – again mostly musical based. However, during November they are also having a mini season of Shakespeare material … which is why it is important not to get the two confused. There will be four productions including Patrick Stewart in Macbeth and Fiona Shaw in Richard II. Each of the four shows will premiere on Monday evenings and remain online for seven days. First up, yesterday, was a recording of Simon Callow’s one-man show Being Shakespeare recorded at the Trafalgar Studios in 2011.
The show follows in the footsteps of 2000’s The Mystery Of Charles Dickens in which Callow and his writer Peter Ackroyd examined both the life and works of the great novelist. In similar vein it is now Shakespeare’s turn but as there is less known about Will’s life the piece sometimes looks at the wider Elizabethan context rather than the details of the individual’s existence. Callow’s writer this time is renowned Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate who takes as his structural template the famous Seven Ages Of Man speech from As You Like It. Thus, we follow Shakespeare and the Tudor world through infancy and boyhood to the adolescent lover, the soldier, the justice, the old man and finally the inevitable crawl towards death. It’s a good premise as a skeleton on which to hang the riches of the Bard’s language, plots and characters.
As with the Dickens’ show, Callow approaches his task with relish and it sometimes easy to forget that often what we are being presented with is conjecture on the part of the performer and author. Where there is no record, Callow embellishes but it is all done so lovingly that this becomes forgivable. Perhaps less overtly over the top than he was in the Dickens show, Callow treats us to part biography, part lecture, part masterclass with the actor inhabiting character after character with a simple change of voice or stance. Often he plays more than one part in the same scene as when he has Prince Hal and Falstaff bandy words with each other or when he is both Juliet on her balcony and Romeo in the orchard below. In one remarkable sequence he gives us all the mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they gather to rehearse; “actors!” he says, knowingly rolling his eyes.
I lost count of the number of plays that were referenced but nearly all the big hitters seem to be present and correct as well as some less well known extracts from the likes of King John; there are also some sonnets, a section of the poem Venus and Adonis (the latter has enough double entendres to satisfy any lover of the Carry On… films) and even a snippet of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. Sometimes the speeches are recited without comment, at other times they are examined for their literary effect – there’s a particular useful guide to how the rhetoric of Mark Antony’s funeral oration over Julius Caesar’s body works. However, there is little overt attempt to paint Shakespeare as anything other than a man of his world who perhaps made less impact at the time he lived than posterity might suggest.
Tim Cairns’ unfussy direction keeps the focus on Shakespeare’s words and Callow’s delivery of them and that is as it should be. The staging is straightforward and there are just enough props to bring added meaning to the extracts. Bruno Poet’s lighting and Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design provide further focus and enhancement. Ultimately though this is Callow’s show, and any students of Shakespeare could do far worse than watch a master craftsman at work. It’s been some time now since I watched a Shakespeare play online – though having worked my way through about twenty of them, I was due a break; this has given me a taste to return.
Being Shakespeare is available via The Shows Must Go On website – click here
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