The Book of Will
Octagon Theatre Bolton, Queen's Theatre Hornchurch & Shakespeare North Playhouse
Octagon Theatre Bolton
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Director Lotte Wakeham writes in the programme that, according to a 2017 article in The New Yorker, Lauren Gunderson is by far the most performed playwright in the USA after Shakespeare, but her name isn't familiar to most people on either side of the Atlantic (we've reviewed just one of her plays, I and You at Hampstead in 2018).
This play opens three years after Shakespeare's death with a rather foppish young actor (Tarek Slater) reciting what sounded to me like the version of Hamlet's soliloquy from the 'bad quarto' of 1603, inexplicably holding Yorick's skull from a completely different scene. In the audience are Shakespeare's colleagues from the King's Men John Hemminges (Russell Richardson), Henry Condell (Bill Ward) and Richard Burbage (Zach Lee), who are angry at what is being performed in their friend's name, especially the latter, for whom many of Shakespeare's greatest roles were written, and who gives them a taste of some of them from memory.
The next day, they learn of the death of Burbage, the man who carried most of the plays around in his head, realise there is a danger that they could be lost for ever and come up with a mad plan to try to find the original plays, assembled from prompt books, actors' 'sides' (scripts for actors containing just their lines and cues), previous publications—even the bad ones—and compile them into a huge, expensive folio edition, something only ever once done before by Ben Jonson.
We don't know much about these people, even less about their wives, and so what follows is a mixture of documented facts, myth and supposition stitched together with lots of jovial banter as the group have friendly arguments over whether they can afford this venture, get the rights for the plays or have a hope of succeeding, all while trying to make a living running a theatre (Heminges manages The Globe).
It's clear that Gunderson has done her research and doesn't want to waste any of it, as characters often have discussions, disguised as reminiscences, where they tell each other in great detail things they all already know that aren't necessarily important to the plot, just to get them across to the audience.
Some things are based on a creative interpretation of fact—blind publisher William Haggard (Zach Lee) is portrayed as a bit of a rogue who will publish now and worry about the legalities later, and Ben Jonson (Andrew Whitehead) as a rather pathetic drunk—but others are based on Shakespearean myth and rumour. I once asked Charles Nicholl (author of the excellent book The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street) whether it could be true that Shakespeare died after a night out with Jonson; he said it's a great story, but almost certainly didn't happen, but it does here.
The 'dark lady' of the sonnets—the idea that the women referred to in some of Shakespeare's sonnets can be identified, with careful analysis, as the same real person with whom the poet was obsessed; all rather Dan Brown—is brought to life here as Emilia Lanier (Carrie Quinlan), one of the many contenders for the title, and is tapped up for money to complete the book.
Finally, of course, the book is printed (not a spoiler—it's history) and a copy (which looked more quarto than folio sized to me, but I could be wrong) is taken to the playwright's widow (Helen Pearson) and daughter (Jessica Ellis) and the rest of the company perform short, quick-fire extracts from the plays with some impressively quick costume changes.
The play itself feels rather clumsy in its construction and dialogue and doesn't need to be as long as it is, but there are some beautifully controlled performances from many of the cast (completed by Tomi Ogbaro, Helen Pearson and Callum Sim in multiple roles) that keep you rooting for a project that saved for us 36 of Shakespeare's plays, half of which (including The Tempest, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar) had never been published before and could have been lost to us for ever.
Reviewer: David Chadderton