Writer: Lauren Gunderson
Director: Lotte Wakeham
It is 1623 and seven years after William Shakespeare’s death. Now exactly 400 years later it is the anniversary of the publication of the first folio of his work collected work. The Book of Will tells of the struggle of those closest to The Bard himself to scrape together, compile, finance and publish the most important book in English literature.
Fresh from opening at The Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, this co-production plays at The Octagon Theatre in Bolton in an intimate round setting. The golden era of ‘Will’ Shakespeare’s performances in The Globe is in decline following his death. The pirating and paraphrasing of his plays have become the norm as his work, surprisingly to a modern audience, has not been preserved in print. The bastardisation of the most lauded playwright and poet in the English language is prolific much to the horror of his closest company, actors and members of The King’s Men. Following the death of chief thespian and cerebral Shakespearean librarian Richard Burbage (Zach Lee), it is down to Henry Condell (Bill Ward) and John Heminges (Russell Richardson) to embark upon a quest to preserve Will’s work before it is lost to time and, ironically due to the nature of theatre, ephemera. They determine to produce the first ‘clean’ and accurate folio of his entire work.
It is an interesting story, obviously rooted in fact, with a large dollop of plot-driven storytelling. Lauren Gunderson’s play, only previously performed in the United States, is a strange combination lying somewhere between the sequel to Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love and Ben Elton’s BBC comedy Upstart Crow. There are literal in jokes aplenty mixed in with a familial sitcom style feel (tankards aloft around wooden tables) that provides a comfortable bridge between academia and accessibility. It has a promising start with the death of Burbage spurring those who regularly performed the first airings of the great plays to realise that they live in an age where to preserve his anthology would take time, effort and money. The play has a strong premise and seems to set up a scrabble to find, beg, borrow or steal snippets of his work from memory and scraps of paper to piece together a mind-boggling jigsaw. However, a little less satisfying, this acquisition seems to come easily with the play settling on the wrangle to acquire the rights and battle the unscrupulous publisher William Jaggard (also Zach Lee). The play becomes a political compromise, a tête-à-tête, surrounding the financing and legalities surrounding publication rather than a scramble to piece together the puzzle itself.
That said, it is an enjoyable play that is an obvious love letter by Gunderson to Shakespeare. She treats us by reminding us of some of the greatest lines written in English literature and the transient nature of life itself as well as theatre – ironically of great importance in trying to preserve his words for future generations. Director Lotte Wakeham has assembled a talented troupe of players. As Condell, Bill Ward feels extremely comfortable driving the action. Likewise, Russell Richardson, navigates the loss of his wife, making the quest a more personal one than it initially began. Andrew Whitehead has an excellent turn blustering his way through a drunkard poet laureate Ben Johnson somehow persuaded to patronise and write the introduction to the first folio.
Whilst The Book of Will is an interesting insight into how the first folio of Shakespeare’s work may well have have originated (albeit with a large quarto of artistic licence) it doesn’t quite fulfil the promise it suggests in terms of entertainment value. It does touch upon the “hot air” so desperately craved by those who need theatre and stories in their lives and reminds us of the importance of preservation and custodianship in an era where this was a novelty. Despite lacking a little wit and charm it is an entertaining and informative piece that leaves you wanting to indulge in Shakespeare’s words again at the earliest opportunity.
Runs until 3rd June 2023