Had Simon Callow arrived in lawless Chicago a century or more ago, like one of those famous traveling British Shakespeareans of yore, proudly proselytizing for the Bard amid the stockyards and the hookers of the Levee, his "Being Shakespeare" would likely have been billed as an "illustrated lecture." Callow has some light production values and the writing is by Jonathan Bate, but this is really one of those one-man shows that an actor, especially an actor with a somewhat recognizable name here in the former colonies, can carry on his back wherever British Airways may lead.
At the start of the proceedings, the genial Callow pops out at the Broadway Playhouse to tell the life story of one William Shakespeare, a scribe of some note, interspersing the biography of the Stratford man with some illustrative selections from his plays and most famous characters, ranging from Falstaff, a fellow whom Callow is now quite well-suited to playing, to Miranda, a role in which he is not terribly likely ever to be cast. The basic premise of the evening is that life of the writer informed the work of the writer.
Well, fair enough, to a point. The problem is that the known facts about the life of Shakespeare are not greatly detailed, despite the recent publication of some major new works of biography. You don't have to engage in authorial conspiracy theories to raise an eyebrow when Callow says that Anne Hathaway, the older woman of 26 whom Shakespeare married in the Stratford years, was his "sexual tutor," leading neatly into a lusty selection from "Venus and Adonis": "Graze on my lips; and if those hills are dry, stray lower, where pleasant fountains lie."
Really? Anne Hathaway, about whom we know next to nothing, taught the glovemaker's son all that before he left her for the big city? Could he not have just had an active imagination? Or indulged in wishful thinking? Was Bate right there in the bedchamber? And, while we're on that theme, what's the basis for the observation that for Shakespeare in swinging Elizabethan London, "Anne and the children must have seemed very far away." Says whom? He might well have pined away every night, thinking of pleasant fountains and wishing they'd invented Skype.
It's a conceit, I suppose, as is the moment when the show uses the rhetoric Shakespeare likely studied at the local grammar school to lead into the line "I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him." Or when Callow tells us how Elizabethan children were coddled by their mothers, leading into the nurturing Lady Constance from "King John," as if Shakespeare were drawing directly from memories of his blissful pre-adolescence. The warm center of the last plays, we're told, was likely a consequence of once-cynical old Bill becoming a sappy grandfather. And London audiences "were thrilled to the marrow when they heard Shakespeare's words for the first time." Really? To the marrow? Were they all that open to new writers from the provinces?
Maybe they were. We just don't know. And while most of Callow and Bate's suppositions are reasonable and within the mainstream of Shakespearean biographical thinking, they do inevitably gloss over the myriad events in his plays that were far outside his experience and, more significantly, the formidable force of his imaginative acts. Too much biographical justification diminishes the man. Which is why, all things being equal, I'd rather hear the musings of a Shakespeare scholar when the fancy takes me, and then go and see one of his actual plays, rather than these snippets, as well-performed as they may be.
Callow is, of course, a formidable actor and the introduction of some notes of ambivalence would greatly help his overly pat show (which nonetheless functions as a fine, accessible history lesson for any young person reading Shakespeare in school but in need of context and a sense of the greatest hits covered by a versatile, well-trained actor). Michael Pennington, who brought a similar Shakespearean hagiography to Chicago in 2009, did a rather better job of musing on the mystery of his man, suggesting, with much foundation, that Shakespeare's entire life "was a sustained act of self-effacement," a line that has stuck with me thereafter.
There's no doubt that many in Callow's audience, which responded very warmly Wednesday night, appreciated the neat digestibility of "Being Shakespeare," which is directed by Tom Cairns. But I found the show lacking in revelation about this most interesting artist — and I mean Callow, not Shakespeare. Callow, still known for the movie "Four Weddings and a Funeral" but now 62 years old, is entering a different phase of his life and career and, unlike many of his peers, his acting is never smug or overconfident but invariably emotional, even needy in all the right ways. There are flashes toward the end of this show when Callow leaves his articulate comfort zone and the conventionality of Bate's writing and shows you himself inside Shakespeare, which is always the most interesting way of being Shakespeare in front of an audience.
When: Through April 29
Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Tickets: $45-$75 at ticketmaster.com
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