REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Will (Auckland Fringe)

Shakespeare's Will
Shakespeare's Will: It's a pun!

No, not that Anne Hathaway.

Shakespeare's Will
Shakespeare's Will: It's a pun!

Shakespeare is perched today on the highest of pedestals in the Western literary world. Apart from those odd rumours that Shakespeare is really somebody else (because somebody with just a Grammar School education could never write like that, don’t you know)… his works are gloried, written about and staged over and over again as if there have been no other good plays written in the last few centuries. But what would Shakespeare’s wife have said about him?  

We know very little about the woman behind Shakespeare, Anne Hathaway. A romanticized view would see glimpses of her appearing in Shakespeare’s strong heroines Viola, Rosalind, Portia…  but then there is also the fact that the only married couple that appear truly happy are Hamlet’s Claudius and Gertrude, and his plays are filled with cuckolded men and sexual jealousy. There is a whiff of gunpowder surrounding Anne and Will’s marriage; she was four months pregnant. He was 18, she was 26 (we are reminded of the Duke’s line in Twelfth NightThen let love be younger than thyself, or thy affection cannot hold the bent”. Peter Ackroyd in his excellent Shakespeare The Biography makes the point that with the shorter life expectancy in those times ‘the disparity of age would have seen greater than now’. She bore him three children, and they seem to have lived most of their lives apart – she in Stratford-upon-Avon with the kids, he in the city pursuing his dramatic career (or as Shakespeare in Love would lead you to believe, wooing other woman). Their marriage doesn’t appear that good on paper.

 The most famous ‘fact’ about Anne Hathaway is what Shakespeare left her in his will: “Item I give unto my wife my second best bed with furniture”. This seeming slight* becomes the basis for a speculative dramatisation of Anne Hathaway’s life in Shakespeare’s Will by Vern Thiessen,  allowing her story to be told elevating her as a woman that remains strong despite plague, her husband’s absence, and deaths.

Expat kiwi performer Suzy Sampson brings Anne to life; she has a bright, quiet intensity that draws you in, and her heavy English country accent is delightful to the ear. She carries the show solo, although a dresser in blacks comes on twice to help her change out of and into dresses, and twice Suzy clicks her hands to change lighting states… hinting at a theatrical awareness that was not satisfactorily explored. The play is told from the ‘present’ perspective after Shakespeare’s death when Anne is given his infamous will to read, and flashbacks where she recounts her life as wife and mother. Often she speaks to her absent husband, wishing he could be part of her life.

Shakespeare through her eyes is not how we would expect. They meet at a local fair, she laughs at how intensely Shakespeare watches the players. Surprisingly, he is “a man of few words”; Anne does most of the talking, Shakespeare’s replies consisting mostly of ‘aye’. He does write her the famous sonnet which scholars reckon pun on her name (“I hate’ from ‘hate’ away she threw, and saved my life, saying ‘not you’). They fall into their relationship. Anne’s father is deadset against it; Shakespeare has nothing going for him… a son of a glovemaker, a Catholic…  But she is pregnant, and they marry.

Anne and Shakespeare spend most of their lives apart. We see Anne yearning and missing her husband, but is characterised with much inner strength and gets on with her own life. Her sexual needs as a woman are addressed, and without judgment, a section details the sexual partners she enjoyed while Shakespeare was in the city. For his part, rumours reach Anne about Shakespeare and a man. She has a nostalgic view about her husband, and refers repeatedly to the vows they made together that nobody else knows about. Her boy Hamnet asks what his father looks like. Shakespeare sends her the odd curt message, but she must rely on others to find out how his career is going.

All this speculation of how it might have gone down is fascinating, believable, and we get a very palpable sense of the time and place. Anne emerges from the play a vivid and humanized character. Shakespeare too, however, in many ways he is problematised. Catnip for Shakespeare fans, Shakespeare’s Will is a remarkable creative imagining, and Anne has much to say.

 * According to Peter Ackroyd, the reference to Anne getting the second best bed isn’t as insulting as it reads. As his wife, Anne would automatically be entitled to 1/3 of his estate, although some like Germaine Greer have disputed this. However, “The ‘best’ bed in the household was that characteristically used by guests. The ‘second best bed’ was that reserved for the marital couple and, as such, is best seen as a testimony to their union” (Ackroyd, Shakespeare the Biography, p483-4)

Shakespeare’s Will plays as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival at the Basement Theatre until 2nd March.

Presented by Twice as Good Productions, directed by Robert Tsonos

More details at the Auckland Fringe Website

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