The happy band of players that performs Will or Eight Lost Years of Young William Shakespeare’s Life is reminiscent of the troupes that wandered the country when the Bard was alive or opportunely arrived at Elsinore in time to further Hamlet’s mischief. Indeed, the Danish Prince receives several acknowledgements during the course of the play along with reference to other works and characters.
....a curiosity rather than a work of great substance.
These actors, however, are charged with performing Victoria Baumgartner’s invention relating to the early years of the burgeoning playwright’s life, the events of which are in reality either unknown or shrouded in mystery. The year is 1585, so we are told, making the young Will about twenty-one years of age. Obsessed with Ovid and poetry he “is living in the peaceful town of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the heart of England with his newlywed wife, Anne. But something’s missing. He’s dreaming of prophecies, rough magic and words no one is able to find”.
As the Duke of York once observed, “A pretty plot well chosen to build upon”; yet therein lies the rub. The building that emerges has a balanced structure but very little aesthetic appeal and some rather odd features. It is a curiosity rather than a work of great substance.
The elegant black and white costumes by Karolina Luisoni suggest the period and create a sense of group identity. They are not out of place in the exposed archaeological site of the Rose Playhouse that boasts a theatre dating from 1587. Less successful are the dance and movement sequences which are used to supplement the expression of tensions and emotions within the characters and also serve as scene breaks. These jar rather than flow, often look uncomfortable and do little to deepen the storyline. Period music would enhance the historical nature of the play and the setting and be consistent with the costumes. Instead a series of choices, including Running with the Wolves, Drop the Game and starting with Gershwin’s Summertime, were often perplexing rather than edifying, unless Will was thinking to himself, “Anne, you is my woman now”.
Sam Veck has the credible appearance of a young Will and jovially banters his way through the advances of his noble Lord and would-be benefactor, lightly deals with the stresses of being a poet and aspiring playwright and appropriately laments the death of his child. It falls to Katherine Moran to suffer more in life as she struggles with the difficulties of daily life as his wife. Beatrice Lawrence and Ronnie Yorke form the Burbage duo with haughtiness and humour in a style that would not be out of place in pantomime but at times seemed to belong to another play. Charlie Woodward mops up the remaining parts of the Earl of Southampton, Christopher Marlowe, and the Gravedigger in three dignified but suitably differentiated portrayals.
After a series of encounters, ups and downs the insecure young man finds his confidence and braces himself to start a life in the theatre. “I love Stratford” he says, “but the world must be bigger than this.” Indeed it is, and the boy turned out to be a far greater figure than this play ever suggests.