Will and Anne

John Topliff

The Manchester Shakespeare Company

Three Minute Theatre

From 21 April 2016 to 24 April 2016

Review by Andrew Edwards

Watching this one-act play about the turbulent married life of William Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway at the 3MT felt quite appropriate on the 400th anniversary of his death. What they have done here is to show various key events in their lives reimagined in the modern or present day.

The main time line is set in April 2016 when the estranged couple meet again in a hotel as Anne—she’s become a children’s writer—has been nominated for an award for her books to be given at Media City in Salford. The rest of the piece is a sequence of extended flashbacks which go back in time from the recent to the far off past and explores the various staging posts in their relationship. So we see them at the various family funerals and weddings, some very near to the main time line and others much nearer the start of their connection some 30 or so years before.

What is particularly interesting is the casting of the two-hander as Lynn Touil who plays Anne, without meaning to be indelicate, feels the right sort of age for her character who in fact was 8 years older than her husband. At this point towards the end of their time together her character would have been around 60. Aiden J Harvey as Will is clearly some years older so it’s quite difficult to believe in his character being younger which becomes critical the further back the play delves.

In each of the scenes, as well as demonstrating their fiery relationship—scholars believe in fact that the real Will did abandon Anne for quite some time in their marriage—they have much to tell us about the characters we don’t see. This becomes quite distracting as the amount of these various children, brothers, theatre colleagues and so on builds and builds.

Despite helpful programme notes, it’s quite confusing. Obviously, the writer has taken what little we know about Shakespeare and his wife and tried to update it while being as true to the scant facts as possible. Where it works well is in the way Harvey as Shakespeare and Touil as Anne relate so that when, in the public scenes of marriages or funerals, they fall out, they are constrained by the fact that they are in public and he is a well-known actor / writer by this point. This discrepancy evokes quite a lot of comedy which works very well.   Harvey is also a fine stage drunk and the pair do seem skittish and more playful when in their younger episodes.

The pivotal scene is the flashback from 20 years earlier which is two soliloquies about the death of their son Hamnet. In fact we don’t know much about why the real Hamnet Shakespeare actually died aged about 11 in the mid 1590s. Both Touil and particularly Harvey are moving as first she describes finding his lifeless body on the village green and then Aiden tells the story of how despite herculean efforts to get there he ends up missing the funeral. Most if not all of this is conjecture on the part of the writer of course.

Along the way, Harvey is allowed to demonstrate why he is such a Chaplinesque performer with his trademark voice work becoming various characters in the stories he tells and some lovely physical comedy. If ever there were a performer crying out to play one of Beckett’s tramps, this is he. Perhaps the Hamnet death sequence goes on just that little bit long for what is essentially a comedy, but it’s the performances which carry it off and particularly Aiden J Harvey who manages more sustained control in his delivery of this episode which more successfully retains the tension for the audience.

There is some use of Shakespearean type language and the odd quote such as Anne saying that Will is too full of the milk of human kindness. Perhaps there could have been more of both of these elements as they are assets to the piece.

The 70-minute run time is about right and there is much humour, including a sublime ad lib when a coin mistakenly emerged from Aiden's pocket and he quipped the place was rolling in money, which the audience and this reviewer hugely enjoyed, so all’s well that ends well.