The set of Being Shakespeare, Simon Callow’s one-man exploration of the life of our most treasured playwright , appears very simple at first glance: a small raised wooden platform dotted with objects – a sword, a globe, a paper crown, piles of books and a model carousel adorned with sprites. To the right, four wooden chairs are stacked.
It is onto this bare space that Callow ambles and begins to speak. Initially he seems merely to lecture us on the facts of Shakespeare’s life but quickly he transforms as he begins to act. Callow plays kings, mothers, boys, teenage lovers, Romans, friends and countrymen; moving seamlessly between them and, with the smallest changes, embodying each character. It is a virtuosic performance.
Being Shakespeare is, however, more than a collection of his Greatest Hits. Callow, and the play’s author Johnathan Bate, take us through the seven ages of a single man and highlight how the biographical details of his life inform, reflect, and are represented in his plays. This is a firm and fascinating rebuttal to those who argue that the son of a provincial glove maker could not have written these glorious works. They are a patchwork made up of all the varied and many influences and experiences of Shakespeare’s existence. In fact, Callow and Bate make an utterly convincing argument that this particular country lad is the only man who could have written them. Shakespeare’s life story is, like each of our own, entirely unique. And it is this that makes his body of work so exceptional.
The set, designed by director Tom Cairns, reveals its hidden depths as Callow continues: through the gloom three life size trees emerge, fire bursts out of the floor, water reflects from an opened trapdoor. Bruno Poet’s lighting transforms the space, throwing majestic shadows onto walls or blazing from a window as if Juliet was indeed the sun. This, combined with Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, beautifully assists our movement from place to place, person to person, play to play, but you feel Callow, like Shakespeare himself really only needs the verse.
In fact, Callow seems least comfortable and fluent when not reciting. He sporadically stumbles over words, briefly loses track of his thread but this doesn’t necessarily detract. It reminds you that this is a live performance and that it is only one man who is holding you captivated with this catalogue of characters.
This production is a veritable feast: one of our most illustrious actors performing the works of our greatest playwright. If, at times, Callow could have taken Hamlet’s advice and spoken more trippingly on the tongue, this is a fault easily overlooked amongst the wealth of riches that he, and the glovemaker’s son, is offering.
Runs until 15th March 2014