Film Review: Our Little Lives: Shakespeare & Me

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Created by: Russell Brand and Ian Rickson

Director: Ian Rickson

‘Comedy, love and a bit with a dog’ – the wise words of Geoffrey Rush’s Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love and the mantra that Russell Brand builds into his new show Our Little Lives: Shakespeare & Me. This thoughtful one-man performance co-created with Director Ian Rickson argues that Shakespeare’s plays and poems are a resource for all of us as Brand recounts his journey from ‘individualism to community.’

Staged in front of a live, social-distanced audience at the Almeida Theatre and filmed exclusively for streaming platform Live Now, this two-hour film includes a 90-minute set followed by a 30-minute conversation between Brand and Rickson captured a week before the show’s recording in which the pair discuss the influences and evolution of this stand-up-meets-biography-meets-soul-searching experience told through a handful of speeches and sonnets.

Brand has two key messages for his audience; the first is that however alien or closed-off Shakespeare’s language may seem, however compartmentalised or elitist being taught it may feel, the effect of those words and the writer’s understanding of the complexities of human existence are almost spiritual. The second, related but much simpler idea that Brand returns to again and again, is that despite the fame, the headlines and any reputation he carries, he is exactly the same as his audience, all plagued by the same self-doubts, needs and attempts to muddle through.

And Brand has done some deep and reflective self-examination in the creation of Our Little Lives: Shakespeare & Me, using the intimacy of the Almeida space to share the disruption of suddenly having a stepfather, the feelings of inadequacy at drama school that led to addiction problems and the distorting effects of fame. That all of these stories are given a comedic twist doesn’t make them any the less potent – ‘I haven’t looked at it as an academic, I’ve looked at it primarily as a show-off’ he asserts – and there is an artless sincerity in retelling these stories that builds connection with the viewer and levels the playing field between the famous speaker and us.

Brand’s honesty extends to the challenge of working for the first time with a director and making those crucial links between his own experiences, feelings and mental health and Shakespeare’s words, where Brand finds considerable resonance. He opens with Richard III’s ‘Winter of Discontent’ speech, launching immediately into championing Shakespeare’s work as a ‘treasure of creativity’ while treading that engaging middle ground between being too academic and being ‘naff’.

And Brand’s affinity with the lines is what makes his reading of them so effective whether it’s Hamlet’s shocked confrontation with true mortality at the graveside, Aufidius’ charged confederacy with Coriolanus, Caliban despairing his physical shape, or the tragic Richard II plagued by the ‘carousel’ of thoughts in his head, Brand is living every moment as an experience from his own life. The show is a challenging prospect but one that works, approaching Shakespeare’s language and the real, universal emotions it reflects with respect and sensitivity.

Ian Rickson is a superstar director with profound interpretations of Uncle Vanya and Rosmersholm earning critical acclaim in recent years, and during the pandemic his podcast interview series with actors and creatives has prepared him for the making-of interview with Brand in which both men talk about their process and willingness to respond to the very different influences they bring to a show of this nature.

Russell Brand’s Our Little Lives: Shakespeare & Me uses extracts from the writer as mileposts in Brand’s own self-discovery, building to his calmer, more contented existence with his young family and his beloved dog Bear who does make a brief appearance. Brand argues there is unimaginable power in these words, not just in controlling who gets to say, hear and understand them, but in sharing them. Matched with his own eloquence and honest contemplation, Brand’s democratic performance shows Shakespeare is for all of us.

Our Little Lives: Shakespeare and Me will be available to stream from 14th July-23rd July via LIVENow. Tickets are on sale now

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Honest contemplation

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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