West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
What exactly did Shakespeare get up to during his phenomenally productive London years? Even a dramatic genius has to let his hair down - well, what's left of it - and sixteenth century Southwark wasn't short of diversions guaranteed to tempt a country boy off the straight and narrow path. Alan Plater's new comedy, written especially for Northern Broadsides, is a marvellous celebration both of William Shakespeare and his low-life drinking chums at the Boar's Head (the Hostelry Formerly Known as the Tabard Inn).
The newly christened pub is frequented by a motley crew who seem to be, in the words of Fat Jack (Barrie Rutter), the "second cousins" of some very familiar Shakespeare characters. Since "wee Willie Shaggers from Stratford town" has yet to become the patron saint of Eng Lit, the sources of his inspiration are somewhat miffed at such blatant identity theft. Big Mac (Andrew Vincent), a Cumbrian wrestler capable of biting the balls off a bear, is disgusted by the ease with which the poncy Orlando thrashes Charles in As You Like It. Fat Jack, already upset by the cruel rejection of Falstaff in Henry IV Part 2, is downright furious at Falstaff's off-stage death in Henry V. We are also presented with not one but two bellows-menders, Matthew and Mark (Andrew Cryer and Conor Ryan), who by an amazing coincidence - possibly not unconnected with the fact that the play is touring with Comedy of Errors - are identical twins.
Not all the rude mechanicals are the originals of Shakespeare's characters, although there is a slight resemblance between sharp-tongued landlady Nell (Sarah Parks) and Mistress Quickly. "Third generation thief" Nick (Simon Holland Roberts) also has an Autolycus-like streak. But not everyone can aspire to immortality, which is all the more reason for Plater to celebrate those who didn't make it into the First Folio - Peter the inept inn-sign painter (Richard Standing); Simon the songwriter (Max Rubin), a man incapable of composing any tune other than Greensleeves; Jane the clown (Claire Storey), a young woman desperate to join Shakespeare's company; and Bella the barmaid (Ruth Alexander-Rubin), who keeps Will's bed warm during his long absences from Stratford.
Plater keeps us waiting almost until the interval before the lad himself (played by Conrad Nelson) makes his entrance, soaking wet and covered in Peter's spilled paint - not so much a Swan of Avon as a Mucky Duck. It's an amusing and unheroic first glimpse of Shakespeare in a work that demystifies both the legend of the Immortal Bard and the process of literary creation. Yet the second half of the play is slightly marred by a whiff of Bardolatry - is there really any need for the Boar's Head regulars to laud Shakespeare's genius in terms redolent of a tourist brochure? But this is a minor quibble. Sweet William is a little gem of a play, perfectly suited to the strongest company Broadsides has fielded for some years. Conrad Nelson's score, an ingenious mixture of jazz, blues, folk and a soupcon of rap - plus a beautiful setting of When That I Was But a Little Tiny Boy - is also superb.
Touring to Liverpool, Buxton, Salford, London, Richmond (N Yorks), Glasgow, Isle of Man, Ollerton (Notts), Portsmouth and Scarborough.
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson