I Am Shakespeare

Written by Mark Rylance
Directed by Mark Rylance and Matthew Warchus
Liverpool Playhouse (9th-13th October 2007)

Reviewed by Alice Lenkiewicz

Some of you probably remember in the film, when each man stood up, one by one courageously and shouted out to Lawrence Olivier in order to protect their leader, “I am Spartacus!”, “No, I am Spartacus!”

The question was obviously on Olivier’s mind, ‘who the hell and which one of them is Spartacus?’ But did you ever imagine that one by one they would stand up and shout out, ‘I am Shakespeare!!’

The play, ‘I am Shakespeare’ by Mark Rylance, is an investigation into the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Conjuring up memories of while I studied for my degree, ideas on postmodernism and questions about ‘fact’ versus ‘fiction’, I remember bemused students trying to comprehend the idea that Shakespeare was perhaps not after-all the authority ‘godlike’ figure we deemed him to be, perhaps he didn’t write his works after-all; this idea immersed with discussions on the idea of ‘Englishness’ as well as the idea that Shakespeare the author was perhaps somehow responsible for keeping the literary canon far too conservative and limited. But what struck me most at the time was the idea concerning ‘facts’. Perhaps over the years information has become distorted. How do we know and what gives us the right to finally confirm that something was actually true? How is it that over many years we finally succumb to certain ideologies and so called facts? How could we guarantee it was genuine? What was real and what was artificial? Does it even matter anymore?

Rylance explores the possibility that Shakespeare was perhaps not the only author of his great works. He also challenges our ideas about who Shakespeare was as a person. The play is set in a kind of run down shed taken over by a rather nerdy Shakespeare fanatic (Rylance) who is convinced Shakespeare is a fake, supported by his funny but naive friend (Sean Foley).

The play portrays great figures of the time, who interact and shed new light on Shakespeare’s authenticity and identity. We the audience were given the opportunity to talk with some of the characters, who included Sir Francis Bacon (he reminded me of my father, I just wanted to hug him), Edward de Vere (very well portrayed by Alex Hassell), Mary Sidney Herbert (fascinating woman, I will look for more info on her) and the all-pervading shadow of Christopher Marlow. At one point the characters walked into the audience and allowed us to ask them questions. I was lucky to have Francis Bacon (dressed apparently in attire representing his original costume) approach me, asking if I had any questions. Slightly thrown by this virtual reality of Francis Bacon, we struck up conversation and even talked about alchemy. Bacon proceeded to tell me that in the time of Shakespeare, plays and their authors was considered rather “fay”. Writers of plays were generally not permitted into the court or into politics and therefore writing groups run by all of our characters here (such as the Wilton group by Mary Sidney) became a way of creating a ‘front’ to disguise their beliefs and writings so that their identities were not revealed and this is where our dear friend Shakespeare comes into the picture. It seems he may have been used also as a kind of ‘cover’ who wrote and ‘took on’ the works of many, including works by Francis Bacon, rather than just his own works, so that other writers could be heard without jeopardizing their courtly positions. Fascinating? I should say so.

As well as the interaction where past meets present, the play used multimedia to emphasise the play’s nature of artifice and humour. Members of the audience were able to phone Shakespeare on stage and ask him questions, one comment to Shakespeare, “Your female characters are rather well rounded…” of which you can guess the answer from a rather ‘country bumpkin’ portrayal of Shakespeare. Interestingly it seemed possible that we the audience could slowly come to terms with this new rendition of Shakespeare on stage. However, I found it quite frustrating at times, I so wanted to accept him but somehow I just wasn’t ready, as loveable as he was.

Funnily enough I went to see a friend who was in the RSC a long time ago perform in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Feeling slightly overwhelmed by the formality of it all and looking at the way author godliness has now changed, I wonder how they would have reacted if people had stood up at some point during the play and shouted out one by one, ‘I am Shakespeare!’ I don’t think it would have gone down very well somehow. Perhaps this play will at last break down some of the fears people have about responding to ideas concerning Shakespeare. I thought the play was excellent.

However, there was just one problem for me, I’m happy to look at all angles but part of me can’t help enjoying the idea that Shakespeare was always this ambitious, interesting and fascinating man, working throughout the night, lute and candlelight in background…

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