Rose Playhouse, London – until 21 April 2018
Countless theories persist about the identity of William Shakespeare, thanks to his humble upbringing in Stratford-upon-Avon – and the so-called “lost years” of 1585-1592, where no evidence of his career or personal life exists. It is this period of time that Will et Compagnie seek to explore (alongside Unfolds Theatre) in their production of Victoria Baumgartner’s play Will or Eight Lost Years of Young William Shakespeare’s Life.
We first meet young Will in the forest, where it’s all a bit mystical – and he seems to be able to hear the deer speaking to him… We see the early stages of his relationship with Anne Hathaway before it skips on a few months and they are married with their first baby. The pressure is on Will to provide for his family, and he first tries to keep them afloat by poaching deer, before going to the Earl of Southampton to see if he will give him patronage (and help keep him on the right side of the law). Along the way Will and Anne have twins, Judith and Hamnet, he has a duel with Christopher Marlowe and joins the Burbages (Richard and Olivia, his sister) in their touring theatre company. But will personal tragedy see him put down the quill for good?
There are many popular hypotheses regarding these “lost years” though none are backed by evidence; this makes it all the more curious as to why this play decides to cover a bit of each of them, rather than positing something wholly new of its own. Like Tristan Bernays’ play Boudica, which formed part of the last summer season at the nearby Globe, there is a fairly blank canvas available – where Bernays provided a focused and tangible piece of theatre, Baumgartner seems to have been unable to decide what she actually wanted to say.
After all, it wasn’t that long a gap in the records, so it feels highly unlikely that anyone could have that much happen to them in such a short period of time. The thread with Richard Burbage and his fictional sister Olivia definitely provides the most entertainment (and is easily the most well developed part of the tangled plot) – that is surely the area most ripe for exploration and dramatisation. Frustratingly only a glimmer of this can fit in, from Will’s woeful audition to his Italian adventure with Richard, as Baumgartner gets distracted by the other more tedious elements. It also seems to mess with some established fact to try & further the lesser threads, such as having Hamnet die well before he actually did.
The play’s composition & direction are both quite odd. Amidst the jarring anachronisms are blocks of lines from Shakespeare’s own plays (I spotted Twelfth Night, Romeo & Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, Hamlet); the odd word or phrase here & there (à la Shakespeare in Love or Upstart Crow), to me, would make more sense in these situations. And whilst I’m not averse to period pieces including modern music, the choices here simply don’t work at all – and words cannot describe the choreography that is paired with it. I’m not sure about having the deer speak to him, but the idea of the voices in his head, with thoughts constantly buzzing through his brain & competing with one another, makes a lot of sense and is cleverly done (making the most of the space & its echoey nature).
Sam Veck does his best to portray the tortured & confused genius-in-waiting, and there is a certain amount of charm there. It’s Beatrice Lawrence & Ronnie Yorke who really steal the show as the Burbages, however. They make a great double act, engaging well with the audience and injecting all the comedy they can muster; their annoyance at Will’s obsession with Ovid proves to be particularly fruitful.
It’s a shame this play has ended up quite so messy, as the topic is really full of potential. It wouldn’t matter about it being rather fanciful if it had a degree of focus – the Horrible Histories team proved this with their take on the “lost years” in ‘Bill’ – as it is, there are just a few fragments to really grab onto.