It’s been exactly one month since I last put pen to paper (or more accurately fingertip to keyboard) in order to write a review. Having done so fairly consistently for a period of about thirty months I thought it high time I took a deliberate sabbatical in order to recharge the batteries. That plus a lengthy holiday abroad mean that it’s been quite a while since I sat in a venue or even in an armchair to soak up some theatrical magic. So, what to begin with? One thing I missed in its entirety and in both senses of the word was the Edinburgh Festival. But as in recent times more generally, there are productions which played there and are now accessible online, so it was to a virtual north of the border venue that I ventured courtesy of the Scenesaver platform.
Three Women & Shakespeare’s Will comes from the pen of Joan Greening who has made something of a speciality of writing about historical figures connected to the arts, albeit in imaginary settings/situations. Thus in recent years she has given us the relationship dynamics of three literary sisters in At Home With The Brontës and a trio of Rosetti’s Women and their influence on the titular painter. It may not be a consciously constructed trilogy, but her latest piece turns the spotlight on Shakespeare, his official wife and another pair of women from what turns out to be his less than salubrious dealings outside his marriage. As Anne Shakespeare neé Hathaway (Sarah Archer) peruses Will’s will, she is confronted by firstly Anne Whately (Julia Munrow) claiming not only a bigamous marriage to the writer but a high degree of responsibility for the words which he wrote. Matters become even more convoluted when mistress and mother of Shakespeare’s only surviving male child, Jane Davenant (Emma Hopkins) turns up claiming her fair share. Anne H, who would have been happier if Will had taken up pig farming, is having none of it and the three soon fall into bickering over the spoils of the deceased’s legacy. If you already know the reasonably famous clause in Shakespeare’s will, the outcome may not come as a total surprise, but in this play it is not so much the denouement that matters as how we get there.
There’s evidence of a good deal of research in the script as well as the broader based conjecture and the writing is liberally peppered with Shakespeianisms. Fortunately, self-nominated ghost writer of many of them Anne W is on hand to reference them (though I’m afraid “Let’s kill all the lawyers” comes from Henry VI not, as claimed Henry IV). Emma Hopkins also gives us a couple of songs though their inclusion doesn’t really add a great deal. As the central figure Archer comes across as a no nonsense business woman who was the power behind the throne even if she allowed her errant husband to deceive her for so long. Greening herself directs with a sense of purpose and has given us another slice of comic invented history which both entertains and informs.
It wouldn’t do to only watch a single show “at Edinburgh” so I also decided to take in Mrs Pack. This is another slice of untold history concentrating on the wet nurse of Queen Anne who looked after the only child of eighteen (that’s not a typo) pregnancies, though even he didn’t survive into adulthood. It’s not an obvious subject for a musical, yet that is what we have here. And there’s no denying that there are some pleasing melodies from Nia Williams in this one act piece with singing that engages throughout.
As befits many a fringe show the staging in Katie Blackwell’s direction is ultra-simple consisting of little more than a bare stage and a washing line where the many deceased infants in the story are memorialised. The show also certainly breaks with the type of sumptuous costuming that might have been considered the norm for this sort of period piece. Unfortunately, this gives the production the air of a late rehearsal with some elements still not in place. And with just four performers playing multiple roles and some dialogue that comes across as a bit muted in the edit it is not always crystal clear who everyone is. There’s no problem with the central character played by Rhiannon Williams who creates a real figure who finds herself at odds with the snobbish society in which she finds herself. Subtitled “The Milking Of A Monarchy”, I still can’t help feeling that it’s an odd choice of subject matter for a musical. But then I also thought that about Hamilton; so, what do I know?