Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Love Introduces Unknown Shakespeare

J. Kelly Nestruck (the Globe and Mail) gives 2.5 out of 4 stars to There Reigns Love:

"William Shakespeare may be the most famous writer in the history of the English language, but he is barely known to us. No tell-all autobiography exists, only a sketch of a life recorded in legal documents.

"For those who desire a deeper relationship with Shakespeare, the man, however, we do have the Sonnets. Written in the first person, these 154 poems full of love and lust are the closest we can come to knowing the Bard with no holds barred. 'With this key, Shakespeare opened his heart,' William Wordsworth wrote in 1827. ('With this key, Shakespeare let down his pants,' Aldous Huxley chuckled in reply, a century later.)

"The Sonnets, themselves seemingly a product of obsession, can inspire obsession in others. Simon Callow, the British stage actor and writer who is best known on this side of the Atlantic as Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is as dedicated to them as any. In 1979, he famously performed all 154 - more verse than the parts of Hamlet, Lear and Othello combined - in a marathon session at the National Theatre in London. The sold-out audience loved it; the critics called him vain. As Callow records in his book, Being an Actor, he was both exhilarated and unsatisfied: 'It was a heady moment but I knew that I'd failed.'

"If at first you don't succeed Callow has tried and tried again ever since, reading the Sonnets for fundraisers and one-off events, including one in Toronto in 1999. Now, in his new one-man show, There Reigns Love, directed by Michael Langham, he returns to 80 of them once more.

"As with his 1979 performance, There Reigns Love is based on the theories of John Padel, a psychoanalyst and classicist who shuffled the poems and read into their new order an elaborate love triangle between William Shakespeare, his 'dark' mistress and a beautiful male youth.

"According to Padel, Shakespeare was commissioned to write 17 sonnets on the virtues of marriage for the 17th birthday of William Herbert, son of the Countess of Pembroke.

"Once he met the young man, however, Shakespeare became infatuated with him in a way that mixed sexual desire with status anxiety and belated mourning for the death of his own son, Hamnet.

"Then, so the theory goes, Shakespeare introduced young Herbert to his mistress, the 'dark lady,' in order to initiate him sexually. But this bizarre relationship went awry. Syphilis and self-loathing followed.

"There's something absurd about mining the Sonnets for detailed autobiography like this. It involves code-breaking and conjecture of the Dan Brown variety, and it can actually warp the pathos and passion of the poems.

"As a framing narrative for a show, however, Padel's speculations will do. Callow leads us through the theory in an erudite, but accessible way, and is always careful to remind the audience that the story he is telling through the Sonnets is not to be taken as gospel. 'Is this his diary? Is this his e-mail? Is this is memo to himself?' Callow asks, pointing to his pocket copy. 'Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows?'

"Dressed in a black suit, Callow is like one of those cool and charismatic English professors beloved by students. At Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre, you can sit on cushions on the stage in front of him for just $10; this is probably the ideal way to experience the show, gazing up at his Vandyke and basking in his gregarious glow.

"When he acts out some of the Sonnets while grappling with invisible characters, the exercise can become silly. But when he performs several that deal with the poet's desire to keep his loved one young and perfect by making him immortal through poetry, Callow turns in a tormented, desperate performance: 'His beauty shall in these black lines be seen/ And they shall live, and he in them still green.' This is impossible obsession, ugly and inspiring.

"Under-rehearsed, There Reigns Love was full of miscues on opening night. Lights illuminated parts of the stage where no one sat or left Callow delivering lines in the dark. Unnecessary harpsichord interrupted him mid-stanza, and Callow himself stumbled, searched and skipped. Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day was, to put it politely, abridged.

"But There Reigns Love, which has only a short run, is more of a 'special event' than a fully fleshed-out production. As an evening with Simon Callow and the Sonnets, it is quite enjoyable, and the bugs will be worked out. Ultimately, however, one is inclined to side with Northrop Frye, who wrote: 'About all that one can get out of the Sonnets, considered as transcripts of experience, is the reflection that pederastic infatuations with beautiful and stupid boys are probably very bad for practising dramatists.'"

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