BEING SHAKESPEARE (USA) 4th - 14th April 2012

The New York Times


    Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defense calls Simon Callow.  In the invigorating “Being Shakespeare,” now playing at the BAM Harvey Theater, Mr. Callow testifies in support of the playwright. His collaborator, the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, has supplied all sorts of contextualizing facts, figures, segues and suppositions, allowing Mr. Callow to point his finger unwaveringly at the title character: He did it.

    “It,” of course, is the most influential, soul-explaining body of literature that the world will ever know. Shakespeare’s authorship has come under increasing fire in recent decades, with challengers disputing that a man of his relatively humble background could have amassed the knowledge - the book smarts, street smarts and existential smarts - to write the way he did. Various high-born types have been suggested instead, as well as the comparably middle-class but Cambridge-educated Christopher Marlowe.

    Mr. Callow, an author and a raconteur as well as an actor (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”), is having none of that. And so he and Mr. Bate, along with the director and designer Tom Cairns, have created a fleet-footed “This Is (Admittedly Unprovably) Your Life,” with Mr. Callow trotting through what we know of Shakespeare’s biography and dropping in germane tidbits from the canon whenever appropriate.

    The actor’s honeyed baritone is capable of making prose sound like poetry and vice versa, easing the transitions between Shakespeare’s and Mr. Bate’s words. Less smooth is the use of Jaques’s “seven ages of man” soliloquy from “As You Like It” as a through-line. The “soldier” and “justice” ages require some shoehorning - Shakespeare seems to have been the rare Englishman at the time who didn’t go to war.

    Mr. Bate might also have steered clear of a few of Shakespeare’s greatest hits. But this, along with Mr. Cairns’s occasional overreliance on underscoring and ominous lighting, is forgivable in light of the skill with which Mr. Callow presents these snippets. His Falstaff seems like splendid company, he gives a memorable performance of three “rude mechanicals” at once in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and his delivery of an obscure soliloquy that Shakespeare contributed to the play “Sir Thomas More” is a welcome break from the chestnuts.

    Other writers may have presented the ties between Shakespeare’s life and work more thoroughly and insightfully (Garry Wills on the rhetorical flourishes of “Julius Caesar,” Stephen Greenblatt on the transformation of Shakespeare’s deceased son Hamnet into Hamlet). Still, “Being Shakespeare” has the propulsive energy of a particularly juicy membership-drive PBS special.

    We learn of the 195 Latin translations of “your letter pleased me greatly” that young Will studied six days a week in grammar school. The grisly mechanics of his father’s glove-making business. The near miss when a commissioned performance of “Richard II” drew the attention of a bloody-minded Queen Elizabeth. And the staggering realization that some London theaters could have housed the entire population of Stratford-upon-Avon twice over.

    And if you think that must have been heady for our hero, Mr. Callow suggests with professorial glee, just imagine being in one of those theaters in 1592 or thereabouts when the first audience saw the first performance of the first work written by William Shakespeare.

    By him and nobody else.