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A CurtainUp Review
Being Shakespeare

Even if you grow up to be William Shakespeare, you start like every other baby: mewling and puking. Shakespeare didn’t invent the activity, of course but he did invent the word: “puking” — it wasn’t Arsenal supporters, it was William Shakespeare. Puking. He liked strong sounds of that sort. .— Simon Callow
Being Shakespeare
Simon Callow

(Photo credit: André Penteado)

Bardolators, cancel everything, and hie thee to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater! Jonathan Bate’s Being Shakespeare starring Simon Callow, is in town for just a short run. Directed and designed by Tom Cairn, this one-man piece cogently explores what Shakespeare achieved andexperienced in his lifetime.

This cradle-to-grave play uses Jacques’ “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It as its dramatic scaffolding, and then establishes the details of Shakespeare's life and career, and what was going on around him that informed his genius.

The real window into Shakespeare’s soul is the canon itself since Callow repeatedly interrupts his biographical riff with savory morsels from the dramas, poems and sonnets, all to underscore his claims about the Bard.

What is surprising is that this piece altogether steers clear of the authorship question. Bate, in artistic harness with Callow, expect the audience to accept on faith that it was the Man from Stratford who penned the Complete Works (with some plays written in collaboration with other playwrights). Sorry, Oxfordians! You will feel that your theory is out of joint during this decidedly Stratfordian evening.

Callow, clad in ordinary clothes, engages the audience by chronicling t well-known, and lesser-known facts. He talks about Shakespeare’s early years in the sleepy little town of Stratford, focusing on his relationships with his father (the glove-maker John), mother (Mary Arden), siblings, schoolmates, neighbors, wife, and children. The later segments cover his adult years in London. They cover employers, patrons, fellow playwrights and actors.

Callow isn’t bothered at all that many in the audience might already acquainted with, or even steeped in, this biographical material. He's confident (rightly so) that his performance is the thing here. As he seamlessly segues from each historical anecdote to famous set pieces, he pulls you fully into the world of a play or the heart of a poem or sonnet. Indeed there’s nothing pedestrian about Callow’s presentation. Line by line, beat by beat, he makes Shakespeare a man of today, and as fresh as those daffodils blooming in Central Park.

Being Shakespeare enthusiastically embraces the rumors surrounding the Bard. During the evening’s proceedings, Callow invites you to join him in musing about William Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne Hathaway (Was it a shot-gun wedding? Or true love?). Then there are the “lost years” between the time he departed Stratford and arrived in London (Did he travel to Spain? The Low Countries? France?). No matter that no definitive statements are offered on these perplexing matters.

This is no thumbnail sketch but a canny portrait of the greatest writer of the past thousand years. Though Bate draws on Shakespeare’s text, he creates a contemporary idiom for the play overall. In short, he holds a mirror up to the Elizabethan and contemporary world. To press the point that Shakespeare lived in a cut-throat commercial world, Bate refers to the sprawling Henry VI plays as the "Henry VI franchise." He finds apt phrases too for some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, referring to the firebrand Mercutio as Romeo’s “psychotic chum.”

Shakespeare lovers will delight in identifying the source of each particular speech or poem that Callow recites. In fact, there’s just one monologue that’s likely to draw a collective furrowed brow from the audience: Thomas More’s speech. Callow confides, explains that it comes from the controversial Play of Sir Thomas More, which he collaborated on with other playwrights late in his career. Callow soberly adds that the censor banned this topical play about immigration, making Shakespeare “yesterday’s man” and ultimately forcing him into retirement.

If you can't make it to BAM before the closing date you might console yourself by reading Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent book called Will in the World, (2004), which brilliantly explores how Shakespeare became Shakespeare. But if you are really wise, you will catch Mr. Callow so gloriously putting Shakespeare in the limelight.

Being Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate
Directed by Tom Cairns
Performed by Simon Callow

Music and sound design: Ben and Max Ringham
Lighting: Bruno Poet
American Stage Manager: Peter Wolf
The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater at 651 Fulton Street. For tickets, phone 718/636-4100 or visit
Opening 4/4/12; closing 4/14/12.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 7:30pm; Sunday 3pm.
Running time: 1 hour; 50 minutes including intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 4/4/12
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