Review: Solo show tries restoring king Shakespeare

Associated Press
In this undated theater image released by Brooklyn Academy of Music, Simon Callow performs in "Being Shakespeare" a new play by Jonathan Bate presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the BAM Harvey in New York. (AP Photo/Brooklyn Academy of Music, Stephanie Berger)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Take that, Roland Emmerich, "thou crusty botch of nature." Be gone, "Anonymous," ''thou goatish pox-marked puttock."

If last year's movie by the guy who brought us "2012" and "The Day After Tomorrow" depicted William Shakespeare as a drunken, inarticulate buffoon, then Simon Callow is here to prove that anyone who doubts the author of "Hamlet" and "King Lear" wasn't a glove-maker's son from Stratford is a "fobbing fly-bitten lout."

The U.S. premiere of Callow's "Being Shakespeare," a one-man show tracing the life of the Bard written by historian Jonathan Bate, opened Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater with the express intent of putting Shakespeare back on his throne.

"He was a grammar school boy from an obscure town in the middle of England," Bate writes in the program. "He came from a perfectly unremarkable background. That's the most remarkable thing of all."

On stage, Shakespeare's life is broken up into seven parts — lifted from Jaques' "Seven Ages of Man" speech from "As You Like It" — and lines from his plays, sonnets and letters are used to fill in the huge gaps in what we know about the Bard's life.

So, as Shakespeare falls in love with Anne Hathaway, Callow quotes from "Romeo and Juliet" (the classic balcony scene beginning "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?") and even plays the Juliet part as well. When the argument is made that Shakespeare likely was a soldier at some point, Callow quotes the "Henry V" speech beginning "Once more unto the breach, dear friends."

Callow, who created the part of Mozart in Peter Shaffer's play "Amadeus" and is probably best known in America for playing the bon vivant who dies in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," is dressed in street clothes — a suit coat and pressed trousers — as he roams the stage using a few props — a sword, a paper crown and a few chairs.

We learn about how the Black Plague affected Shakespeare's family, how he first landed a job in London as a stable hand — "500 years later, he'd have vallet-parked your car" — found protection under the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, and how late in life he worked hard to restore the Shakespeare name, which his father had ruined, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Bate's argument — that echoes of Shakespeare's real life bleed into his work, proving he was a real person — is easily won by the interval. Callow takes evident glee in getting to play various Shakespearian roles he might never land — like various fools and Mamillius, the young son in "Winter's Tale" — and has a clear love for the Bard.

But "Being Shakespeare" requires vigilance and attentiveness from its audience. Director Tom Cairn favors a brisk account and Bate's script is packed full of freewheeling quotes from "Macbeth," ''King Lear," ''The Tempest," ''The Comedy of Errors," ''As You Like It," ''Winter's Tale" and more. They come and go quickly, keeping the piece fragmentary. It sometimes feels as if you are in a masterclass in English lit.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, especially after "Anonymous" portrays Shakespeare as a drunken, inarticulate buffoon. "Being Shakespeare," which has toured England, been in the West End and next hits Chicago after its New York stand, makes it cool again to be smart.

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Online:

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