Bill Shakespeare stands onstage in chains. 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 on trial.
These questions are explored in the hilarious play (aptly called Shakespeare on Trial) by Jeremy Webb which has toured the Maritimes several times, ran for a limited run last summer at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space and now comes to Neptune’s Studio Theatre for ONE NIGHT ONLY on Wednesday April 20th at 8pm. The play 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 BFFs with Britney Spears), 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.
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 and the indigenous playwrights who could grow to be the “soul of [our] age, the applause, delight, [and] the wonder of our stage.”
* this review was originally posted on June 6th, 2009. Amanda Campbell saw Shakespeare on Trial again on September 6th, 2009 and then AGAIN in June 2010 and reposted this article. She stands by her initial assessment of this production. She would also like to state that Simon Henderson, in particular, keeps getting funnier and funnier.