With the 400th anniversary commemorations of Shakespeare’s death in full swing, it is hardly surprising that there are a number of productions coming up that have the Bard at its core. Tony Diggle – who staged another of his plays at the Chelsea Theatre in 2013 – writes and envisages Shakespeare in heaven, wanting to see his Globe in the anniversary of his death. We also have other writers up there – Marlowe, Shaw, Jonson – and the spirit of Puck from The Midsummer Night’s Dream, among others.
Although the play has a promising start and a seemingly interesting plot – and is directed by the talented Andrew Loudon – it failed to keep my attention, particularly in the second act. Time goes back and forth, and we see a young Shakespeare, his father, wife and one of his daughters; the Elizabethan and Stuart Stratford-upon-Avon; some present day citizens of London; and together with Puck we find Marlowe’s Mephistopheles and an angel. There is an overarching narrative to this but it fails to show at times, leaving the audience wondering what is going on. After a more or less coherent first act, the plot gets lost in storylines that seem unrelated with the main event: Shakespeare coming back to London and writing a new play; subplots about the Bard’s inaction in times of hardship; and his relationship with his wife and daughters when he was close to death. Over-long scenes and a sense of being stuck without any progress whatsoever made me feel quite lost and put me off the final section of the performance. The new play Shakespeare writes, inspired by what he saw in today’s London, is performed by himself and the rest of the cast, and at this point it becomes a satire of today’s economy and politics. Intriguing as a concept, it all feels rushed and incoherent. I must say, however, that there are appealing aspects of the script, such as the dialogues between the writers and most of Shakespeare’s interventions.
The play’s large cast give unequal performances. Jonathan Coote’s Shakespeare is by far the most credible, with a booming yet warm voice and fierce energy. His younger counterpart, played by Dan Wheeler, is also engaging even though he displays a strange ambivalence between happiness, anger and frustration. However, there is something uncomfortable about Richard Ward’s George Bernard Shaw, seeming sometimes like a parody while not delivering with much clarity. He is redeemed, however, as the show goes on. Both Juliet Vaughan Turner (Anne Hathaway) and Kirsten Shaw (Susanna Shakespeare) give believable and moving performances, with a strength and determination that other characters lack.
Although it has an interesting starting point and a mostly effective and talented cast, A Kingdom For A Stage fails to make itself understood. It tries and sadly fails to pursue too many subplots, while attempting to lecture the audience in the history of Stratford and Shakespeare’s biography. It has moments of textual brilliance, and the production does its best to convey the story, but overall it all feels confusing: an odd mix between history lesson, parody and social criticism.
A Kingdom For A Stage is playing at the Chelsea Theatre until 7 May. For more information and tickets, see the Chelsea Theatre website. Photo: Charlene Segeral