Bill Shakespeare stands onstage in chains once again. There is something rotten between the pages of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The illustrious characters that he has slaved mercilessly to bring to life have vanish’d into thin air. We, the contemporary audience, have lent Julius Caesar our ears; but is Shakespeare’s language too languid and crammed with poetic, buried subtext to be fully understood and appreciated? For all the foul deeds that have unleashed numerous ghosts and bloodied hands, does Shakespeare’s theatre now prove as deadly as MacBeth’s sword? Thus, William Shakespeare is still on trial.
These questions are explored in the hilarious play (aptly called Shakespeare on Trial) by Jeremy Webb which I recently saw for the fourth time at the Dunn Theatre as part of The Atlantic Fringe Festival. I cannot, it seems, get enough of this play. Simon Henderson gets more charming and more silly every time I see him, the improvised bits between him and Jeremy Webb are funnier and more and more reminiscent of something like the shtick you would expect from Lane and Broderick. This performance also included a scene stealing performance by a young actor named Rowan. It is not (quite) all hilarity, however, in this production Webb’s performance of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy leapt out at me as being one of the most moving, interesting and intelligent I have ever seen. Someone needs to cast Webb in this part STAT.
Shakespeare On Trial was created to be toured to schools as part of Theatre Nova Scotia’s Perform Program, as a means to remind students that the words they study in English class were written to be performed by actors trained to convey the essence, beauty and truth of each line they spoke. Also, to remind students that these four hundred year old texts are called “plays” for a reason and to reveal that the theatre, good theatre, is not the house of boredom that stereotypes so often make it out to be.
Here, Bill Shakespeare (Simon Henderson) is greeted by four of his most famous characters: MacBeth, Iago, Hamlet and Juliet (all played by Jeremy Webb, as, a man in his time plays many parts) and he is confronted (literally and physically) with whether his words still hold their relevance in today’s world. The play is a joyful romp reminiscent of smooshing Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author together and thrusting the mixture into the Globe Theatre circa 1594.
Webb has a brilliant talent for knowing exactly how to balance remaining true to the world of the story he is presenting and adding pertinent, witty, pop culture references, improvisations and jokes. The audience is treated to a grand buffet of humour, most of it broad enough to appeal to even the biggest Shakespeare cynic (Webb plays a Juliet who I’m sure could be besties with Lindsay Lohan), but there are a few tidbits slightly more obscure for us more pretentious aficionados (Hamnet. Hamlet? No Hamnet. Hamlet? No Hamnet. Hamlet? Hamnet. Hamlet? Hamnet!).
Martha Irving’s direction brilliantly utilizes an extremely small space to the most effectiveness and includes hilarious moments of physical humour, as well as a magnificent sword fight. Together, Henderson and Webb embody the world’s most famous men (and women) and yet, through it all, at their essence, they are two boys playing in an Elizabethan cartoon world of limitless imagination.
It is to their credit- their brilliantly exuberant, joyfully playful, yet earnest, performances- that most of the comedy is due. Henderson’s Shakespeare revels in hearing his words performed, and is quick to jump into the saddle of any part that needs playing (including Ophelia). The dialogue Webb has written for Shakespeare sounds as though it was lifted from the Bard’s own journal (those antiquated Facebook statuses of yore.) All the words in the play come alive as they are spoken, proving that Henderson and Webb are just the sort of actors for whom Shakespeare penned his plays.
Shakespeare on Trial is just the sort of theatre that I imagine invigorating an auditorium filled with teenagers. It is silly enough to prove that actors are but merely players, and yet full of the stuff to inspire and capture young minds and hearts- perhaps even those who will grow to become Halifax’s own future Hamlets, Ophelias, Othellos, Iagos (perhaps Rowan) and the indigenous playwrights who could grow to be the “soul of [our] age, the applause, delight, [and] the wonder of our stage.”
Shakespeare On Trail runs at the Dunn Theatre in the Dalhousie University Arts Centre (6101 University Avenue) at the following times:
Sunday September 2nd at 2:30pm & 8:00pm
Monday September 3rd at 2:00pm
Tuesday September 4th at 8:30pm
It is $9.00 to book tickets please visit this website or call (902) 999-7469 or visit the Box Office at the Seaport Farmers’ Market at Pavilion 20 on Marginal Road. Tickets are also available at the venue ONE hour before the show. See YOU at the Fringe!