Brian K. Stewart's one man play has already won four Prix Rideau awards in its native Canada, and now it is off to a flying start in the UK. It is simple, effective theatre that gets right to the heart of good storytelling.
Impressively, the play manages a subtle commentary on the social conservatism of Shakespeare's work without losing the strong focus on its central character.
The play follows the fortunes of an actor from Shakespeare's famous theatre troupe, The King's Men. Reports of an uprising in the Midlands move him to leave his comfy job in the theatre to go and join the movement. Eventually, he decides that he must return to London to ask his old friend Will to write about what is happening in the land where they both grew up.
The central character himself is adeptly portrayed by the incredibly versatile David Warburton. Despite standing his in the shadow of Shakespeare, it is this character’s story we are invested in and ultimately him we are rooting for. He is convincingly flawed, his decisions acquiring the everyday heroism of a person determined finally to live up to their own standards.
Impressively, the play manages a subtle commentary on the social conservatism of Shakespeare's work without losing the strong focus on its central character. This academic critique is expressed in the entirely personal terms of the main character's sense of betrayal, allowing the criticism to feel utterly contemporary to Shakespeare, rather than something retrospectively imposed from our own time.
The script plays on the plausible theatricality of an actor-protagonist, which allows Warburton to show off his impressive skill as a storyteller, transforming himself line after line to people his story.
Despite its manifold strengths, the show stops short of being completely wonderful. Perhaps because, despite the character’s realism, we don’t get to know him well enough to find him truly charismatic. The emphasis is always squarely on the story he’s telling, and this is detrimental to the characterisation. The silent presence of Shakespeare, a tantalisingly more interesting character, compounds this effect too.
But these are minor quibbles. Ultimately, this is a strong, highly engaging piece of theatre that raises some very important critical questions about Shakespeare without descending into a lecture. For 90 minutes, we are watching Shakespeare from the perspective of his own groundlings.