Whenever I visit the pretty Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon to go to the theatre, it never ceases to amaze me that if one Will Shakespeare hadn’t hailed from there, it probably wouldn’t register on tourists’ agendas at all. It is hardly surprising that Shakespeare has been mythologised and put on a pedestal, but Shakespeare The Man From Stratford, a new play by world-renowned Renaissance scholar Jonathan Bate strips away the mystique to show us that Shakespeare came from a very ordinary background and yet was gifted with an extraordinary imagination and empathy with human beings from all walks of life, not to mention the hard work and intensive research.
The idea that his plays could not have been written by someone from a non-courtly background I think is similar to the ridiculous assumption that Jane Austen could not have written such incisive and heartfelt novels about love and marriage without having had a secret love affair of her own. Shakespeare’s upbringing as the son of a glove maker in a small provincial market town was not glamorous, but as Jonathan Bate comments ‘That’s the most remarkable thing of all’
The production is deceptively simple, skilfully directed by Tom Cairns and cleverly designed by Jeremy Herbert featuring some books, a mobile and a very special dog. Jonathan Bate bases the piece around the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech from As You Like It, peppered with anecdotes about Shakespeare’s life and Elizabethan culture. We follow Will Shakespeare’s early life as the first surviving child of the future mayor of Stratford John Shakespeare and his wife Mary, which was beautifully illustrated by the scene with the little prince Mamillius asking for a story from my personal favourite play The Winter’s Tale. Moving on to ‘the whining schoolboy, with his satchel,’ Bate argues that the education Shakespeare received in a newfangled grammar school (which taught only Latin grammar) where the boys learned how to acknowledge thanks when responding to a letter in 100 different ways as well as the language of the law and government was more than sufficient and indeed perfect to train him in the art of rhetoric. Conspiracy theorists can look away now.
Taking centre stage throughout, Simon Callow is delightful with his command of the stage and that extraordinary voice. He is charming company, like a favourite uncle sharing his stories. The way in which he offers snapshots of characters as diverse as Romeo and Juliet to Brutus to Falstaff, effortlessly capturing the essence of each one is astonishing. Let’s hope it is only a matter of time before we see Simon Callow as Prospero or King Lear.
I find that the one-person shows that work best are both entertaining and informative, which is why pieces about real-life figures work so well. This is beautifully written and performed and full of clever little touches in the staging. Shakespeare was the man from Stratford and the playwright from London- during his lifetime, he was only renowned in his hometown for the property portfolio he obtained in his forties. I wonder how he would feel about Stratford being the epicentre of performances of his works today. In the programme notes, Jonathan Bate asks ‘what was it like being Shakespeare? That is the question we ask in our play.’ I am still not certain what the answer to that is, but surely what matters most is the works themselves.