Shakespeare’s saved the best to last: you will like it!

It’s the opening night and the place is packed. Welcome drinks and laughter. The atmosphere is warm and friendly.

Nurse Dugmore (Linda Elvira) lights the candles and removes a dust cloth from some furniture in a dark room, which it transpires is the top floor of the Elephant, a hostelry on the South Bank of the River Thames, which is expecting a most esteemed guest. There are paintings of women in every corner, a large print of Hollar’s panorama of the Thames behind a mullioned window, and a large chair and writing desk in the centre of the room.

 

She struggles into the room with baskets of provisions to get it ready ahead of his arrival, disapproving of the settings. We hear the sound of gentlemen talking on the stairs.

 

A tired and worn-out playwright, William Shakespeare (Ian Burns), is heard muttering: “Not now Master Fletcher − I beg of you, I am exhausted,” before appearing in the room dressed in black, with a cloak and hat. He lets himself fall on to the nearest place to rest. On a large travelling trunk. 

 

We are taken back to the old days of London, where the streets were not so much paved with gold, but something else.

 

The once famed and worshipped Shakespeare only months earlier watched his career go down in flames, along with his beloved theatre. He now feels like one of the tragedies he was famous for writing, tormented and bewildered, yet given the opportunity to give life to an idea for a comedy, ‘The Jailer’s Daughter’. The story is brought to him by Fletcher, whom we never get to meet in person.

 

Shakespeare’s faithful nurse, who almost against his will keeps him going, is played by Elvira (again) with great empathy and wit. She wears what looks like a pair of orange satin undies on her head and speaks loudly in a thick Northern accent: “You’re to have your syrup Mr Shakespeare – I care not if it tastes like Satan’s crack.” She urges him to rest, but he says no: “Fetch me my paper and pen.”

 

But we soon understand that in this hour of profound darkness, it is clearly not so easy to break free from the inhibiting chains of grief. Old Will is suffering from writer’s block, but help is at hand from an eerie singing nymph (Christiane Bjørn Nielsen) who encourages him to seek his inspiration from his one true muse and his leading ladies from previous plays. They come alive in his mind’s eye − appearing from behind veils and curtains − like visions, speaking and singing devotedly with glossy lips and goldilocks, to their creator to engage and inspire him in his deed.

 

Burns humbly takes ownership of the stage in his role as the darkened, tormented Shakespeare. He fills the role perfectly and so do his companions, the leading ladies. Elvira and Nielsen are clearly in their element, enjoying their multiple roles to the full.  

 

They include Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Perdita (‘The Winter’s Tale’), Ophelia, Cleopatra and towards the final part, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern (from ‘Hamlet’) wearing tricots that poke out revealingly. This is very funny: “Women are we my lord. But we appear to you in this mannish gear.”

 

When the nurse returns in the morning, she finds Shakespeare collapsed in his chair. He has been writing all night.

 

While it certainly helps if you know the characters beforehand, in order to get the full picture and understanding and value of the play, it’s still accessible if you’re a Shakespeare novice. In this respect, full credit must be given to both Burns and director Barry McKenna, the co-writers of the play, for opening up the beauty of the Bard to those less keen on sitting through five-hour plays.

 

Those gathered at the world premiere of ‘Shakespeare’s Women’ were treated to a quick-witted, most charming performance. We need more plays like this in English.

 

Shakespeare’s Women  

February 20 at Krudttønden