If there are two things about Mrs Shakespeare that endures for some time after seeing it, it is the playfulness of the concept and the infectious energy with which Irene Kelleher executes it. Based upon the premise that the Bard has been reincarnated in the form of a twenty-first century Irishwoman – whose conviction in that belief drives the narrative of the piece – Mrs Shakespeare is an irreverent, and at times incisively clever piece of theatre, which deftly balances the seemingly unwieldy storyline with an infectious humour. It effectively interweaves Shakespeare’s original work to achieve an acute solo piece studying the voicelessness inflicted upon female characters through much of the historical theatrical canon.
The main delight of the piece is to be found in Kelleher’s performance. It’s impressively broad, both emotionally and physically, and her commitment to each of the many roles – Henry, the psychiatrist; Hamlet, the tortured prince; Ophelia; Polonius; Claudius; and, of course, her regendered version of the titular writer himself – is impressive and consistent. She carries the comedy with ease, helped along by the good quality of the writing, and out-loud chuckles come throughout the piece in response to a series of well-crafted one-liners. The piece abounds with energy, and multiple excursions into the audience (whilst maybe too often repeated) feel comfortable and friendly.
The story hinges primarily on Kelleher’s literal “ripping apart” of Hamlet, both intellectually and physically – a Cambridge School Shakespeare copy takes a beating as she assesses the work of her first incarnation, Shakespeare himself, 400 years previously. Tearing pages out, she reads and sneers at some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines: “‘To be or not to be’: well that’s a cliché.” The characters are humorously reimagined as Mrs Shakespeare amends her most famous work, and just like the famous writer she claims to be reincarnated from, she kills unrepentantly as she reworks the classic to be called Ophelia. Her rewriting of the script accompanies the story of her psychiatric treatment and, as it develops, the two worlds collide with devastating consequences.
Mrs Shakespeare is a cleverly put together, excellently performed production, and Kelleher’s performance leaves an impression long after leaving the theatre. The whitewashed brick walls of Paradise in the Vault’s theatre are an excellent choice of venue, lending an air of the isolated psychiatric holding cell to the proceedings and complementing the story well. Overall, Mrs Shakespeare can be considered an imaginative spin-off from Shakespeare’s works, and a strikingly novel concept that is delivered with conviction and style, and which audiences will remember long after leaving the auditorium.
Mrs Shakespeare played at Paradise in the Vault at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For more information, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.