Shakespeare’s Will – Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Writer: Vern Thiessen
Director: Marianne Gaston
Reviewer: John Kennedy

Nuanced, elegiac in its embrace, empathic in tone and essential humanity, writer Vern Thiessen describes the conceit of his using Shakespeare’s documented Will, as ‘a springboard for his imagination.’ Rain, brooks and rivers washing down to the sea remain a translucent canvas for revisited imagery and symbolism throughout the performance and he plunges into them with dashing abandon. There’s a nuanced reference to Ophelia’s pre-submersive herb and flower incantation that has poignant resonance later in the play – it suggestively chimes with Gertrude’s, ‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook,’ soliloquy.

Through an ensemble of intuited ‘imagined’ dialogues, anecdotal re-enactments and the very briefest of correspondence from her now London based writer-in-residence/writer-in-tavern/writer-in-flop-house floozie’s bloomers husband, Sally Hyde Lomax as Anne Shakespeare, née Hathaway, reflects upon a shotgun marriage of giddy love trysts, dislocation, heartbreak, maternal pride and not least having to put up with sister-in-law, Joan, being a proper ‘bitch’.

But Anne will concede she enjoys a bit of rough and tumble on the side – she’s a married woman now so at least they can’t brand her a slut. And isn’t word coming up from ‘The Smoke’ that husband Will has a bit of young boy/s ruff and fumble going on as well? It’s all a matter of simultaneously laughing both with, and then crying for, her.

As for that harridan Joan, career interferer, busy-body and all-round Stratford upon Avon morality mega-horn for hire, she persistently insists that Anne must read Will’s will. Eventually, she does with numbing consequences. She harps his mind alike from beyond the grave – the house goes to sister Joan: Anne is bequeathed the ‘second best bed’. Is this his revenge for her allowing the children to swim in the sea where son Hamnet drowns thus neutering Will’s ambition of perpetuating his newly contrived coat-of-arms male ‘lineage’ aristo-cred?

In Vern Thiessen’s flexible construct the tragic irony of Hamnet’s death is that the family, sans Will, were escaping from one of the recurrent outbreaks of Plague. It is open to conjecture whether this distortion of fact (Hamnet may have died of a variant of The Plague aged eleven) stretches Thiessen’s ‘fast and loose’ licence a metaphor too far.

But it is Sally Hyde Lomax’s enchanting conviction, charm and vibrancy that wins over any alternative truth juggled historical liberty taking. Her father’s credo, her ever guiding compass: ’When the wind is up – you always move on.’ And after all, wasn’t Shakespeare the ultimate Royalty pleasing, wide-boy sonnet-sycophant, Tudor spin-doctor propaganda tart on the South Bank circuit ever? Notwithstanding that Anne already had a cottage anyway?

Reviewed on 10 September 2017 | Image: Contributed

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