John Colbourne (Sun Media) gives There Reigns Love 3.5 out of 5 stars:
"Defining Shakespeare as 'just a playwright' is a little like defining Michelangelo as 'just a sculptor.'
"For while the latter's legacy is certainly defined in large part by works like David and the Pieta and the former's by his roster of works for the stage, when it comes to Michelangelo's artistic contributions, if one overlooks the bit of painting he did in the Sistine Chapel, one gets no more a complete portrait of the artist than if one looks only at Shakespeare's plays and overlooks the sonnets that have captivated the world for centuries.
"And while the Stratford Festival has spent a fair bit of time exploring the depth and the breadth of Shakespeare's plays, his sonnets, in the main, have been left to languish here.
"All that changes with the arrival of There Reigns Love, a new work for the stage devised and performed by British artist Simon Callow (who one might label 'just an actor' if one had read neither his bio nor any of his books).
"Although it was commissioned by The Stratford Festival, where it made its premiere Sunday on the stage of the Tom Patterson, There Reigns Love is, in fact, part of an ongoing exploration in which Callow has been involved for some time.
"It all started when he became involved with psychoanalyst John Padel, who had re-ordered the 154 sonnets from their 1609 printing in such a way that they told a story of a three-sided love affair that involved not only Shakespeare, but a young British nobleman, his mother and Shakespeare's one-time mistress.
"The name of the mistress has sadly been lost to history, but the theory has long held that the young man in question -- the Mr. W.H. of the cryptic 1609 dedication -- is one Mr. William Herbert, who became the third Earl of Pembroke, son of Mary Herbert, who was apparently in her day a major force in the arts.
"According to Padel's theory -- a theory apparently thoroughly embraced by Callow, even though he cautions his audience that not a single word should be taken as gospel -- Shakespeare was initially hired by the mother to write a series of sonnets for the youth's 17th birthday, extolling the virtues of matrimony.
"Having been thus introduced, Shakespeare developed a passion for the young man, eventually hatching a plan to introduce the youth to the older man's mistress and thus to the mysteries of heterosexuality.
"Once introduced, however, the young man embraced them so enthusiastically that the playwright/poet lost his place in the young nobleman's heart.
"In Callow's hands, working under the direction of the venerable Michael Langham, it all makes for a pretty compelling argument, presented using about half of the sonnets as proof of the theory espoused.
"With a few members of the audience seated on pillows on the stage, Callow begins what initially feels like lectures most of us recall from high school days, save for the fact that this is a lecturer caught up in his subject and gifted in recitation.
"But as the work progresses, transformations from theory to poetry marked by the off-stage strumming of a lyre, it becomes more and more theatrical, with Callow roaming the recesses of Charlotte Dean's simple set and, through the power of his recitation, making us see the world through Shakespeare's great love and his great loss, using sonnets more at home on the page than the stage as building blocks.
"Even without the occasional glitches that marked the opening-night performance and almost brought it to an early end, it's a problematic work for the stage -- but under Langham's direction, Callow thinks his way through every single line, rather than merely reciting it, and 'as an imperfect actor on the stage,' makes it memorable nonetheless. "