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Theatre in Review: Shakespeare's Will (NACL Theatre/HERE)

Tannis Kowalchuk. Photo: Emily Hewitt.

The title of Vern Thiessen's 2005 solo show is a Shakespearean pun: The play focuses less on Will Shakespeare than on the will of Shakespeare, who, as the play begins, has just been buried, having expired at the age of 52 (not bad for those days). His widow, Anne Hathaway, isn't exactly carried away with grief. "I long for the sea," she says, adding, "The sea was a far better lover than you, Bill. When it had me, I was wet and warm. But you: You were a rough, rocky shore." At the funeral, Joan, Anne's loathed sister-in-law, hands over the document of the title, indicating, in her distinctively vindictive way, that she is familiar with its contents. In contrast, Anne hasn't the faintest idea of what it says.

It's hardly surprising that Anne greets the loss of her husband with such composure, because, practically speaking, she never really had him. As she recounts, she was happy being a spinster, caring for her widower father and her brothers, and would have continued in this life indefinitely but for a tumble in a barn with the young Will. Marriage was on neither partner's mind. For one thing, he was eighteen and she was twenty-six. For another, she casually asked him if he liked boys -- and received a decidedly ambiguous answer. Without the direct intervention of fate, they might never have seen each other again.

But, two months later, Anne realizes she is pregnant, and she and Will decide to do the conventional thing and marry. Anne's father is furious -- Will is unacceptable on many fronts, being a tutor, the son of a glove maker, and a Catholic -- but the young sort-of lovers make their own vows: "To live our own lives. To treat each other well but allow for our separate desires. To have our secrets but protect what we each hold most dear." If that sounds to you like a recipe for the Tudor equivalent of an open marriage, you're on the money.

Not that they don't share a romantic attachment: Will reads Sonnet 145 to Anne, noting that the lines "'I hate' from hate away she threw/And sav'd my life, saying -- 'Not you'" are a coded reference to her. After a few years and three children together, Will, an aspiring writer, is offered a job with the Queen's Men -- the sixteenth-century equivalent of landing a gig with the National Theatre -- and off to London he goes. Before long, he is penning the troupe's vehicles, becoming the most famous playwright in the history of the world. He faithfully sends home money each month, and soon the family is living very well. But Anne rarely, if ever, sees her husband, who, she learns, is living with a male companion. Not that she lacks for amorous activity: As she notes, maidens caught carrying on with men are cast out as sluts and whores, but married women, if discreet, can bed whomever they like.

This is about as racy as Shakespeare's Will gets, settling instead for a portrait of a neglected housewife who dedicates herself to her children, garden, bees, and lovers, while missing her husband -- but not too much. What drama is on offer has to do with an outbreak of "the fever" -- typhus, I assume -- which drives Anne, whose mother died of the disease, to flee to the seaside with her children and servants. At this point, the action jumps ahead to Will's burial day and Anne's reading of the will, with its famously mingy bequest to her, which is here interpreted as payback for an event -- not to be revealed here -- that took place during the family's flight from the epidemic.

It doesn't matter that many scholars believe that the will -- daughter Susanna got the bulk of the estate while Anne received only a bequest of the playwright's "second-best bed" -- isn't as cruel as it sounds. For one thing, a bed was an expensive luxury item in those days, and for another, Susanna and her husband -- who partnered with Shakespeare in various business enterprises -- may have been expected to care for Anne. The known facts are few and Thiessen has the right to his interpretation. What is lamentable, however, is the lack of conflict. Most of the time, Shakespeare's Will is a quasi-poetic account of a woman running her household while her absent spouse courts fame and fortune in the big city. With its relentless focus on the quotidian and Anne's penchant for bursting into bits of song, it seems determined to position her as a kind of Elizabethan Emily Dickinson, but without the poetry. And since Anne and Will barely have a relationship, the eleventh-hour revelation of him reaching from beyond the grave to punish her lacks any impact at all.

Under the direction of Mimi McGurl, Tannis Kowalchuk, who plays Anne, runs around the stage, striking poses, throwing her arms wide, and, occasionally, bursts into song; she offers caricature portraits of her father, Joan, and Will, among others. But she can't supply drama where none exists -- and her manner is often disconcertingly modern. More than once, her Anne seems like a put-out suburban soccer mom whose husband fails to pull his weight at home.

It's not uncommon for biographers to make cases for the spouses of the great writers; you can find books about everyone from Zelda Fitzgerald to Vera Nabokov to Nora Joyce, all of which argue that they were crucial to their husbands' successes. Whatever the individual merits of such works, it's hard not to feel that Shakespeare's Will -- even with the license of fiction -- focuses on the duller half of this storied marriage. Whatever happened between William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway will probably never be known; a gripping theatre piece about her would surely demand a more creative approach than that offered by this rather wan entry in the Dead Celebrity Playhouse genre. Once again, Anne has to settle for second best. -- David Barbour

(22 March 2018)

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