Reviewed by John Hargreaves
“He was a man of few words,” Anne Hathaway tells us — each of her pick-up lines as she seduced her eighteen-year- old Bill being answered with a grudging monosyllable. How that would change. As the Shakespeares’ early model of an open marriage goes the way of such things, Anne enjoys the pleasure of other men while Bill develops a love affair with words.
The fruits of that affair have been celebrated round the world this past week, four hundred years after William Shakespeare’s death. His plays and poetry are unrivalled for what they reveal about the human heart and mind, and yet they give us almost nothing about the man himself.
But he did leave a will, and that is the inspiration for this fascinating one-woman play from multi-award winning Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen.
After the death, the burial – at which Bill’s sister Joan hands the will to Anne, with a sneering smile which fills the widow with foreboding. Anne delays reading the document, creating a sense of mystery which gives a very simple structure to Thiessen’s invention. Beneath that, and with very little historical evidence to restrain him, he unleashes Anne’s recollections of a lifetime with, and largely without, Bill.
Shropshire actress Joanna Purslow brings a wild-eyed passion to the role which sweeps us along like the “white toothed smile” of the sea which shows itself for good and ill at pivotal points in Anne’s life.
Incorporating a range of voices in her storytelling – including her father, husband, sister-in-law, sundry lovers, and three children — she gives us a strong and sensual woman who insists on her own, empowering, marriage vows but finds herself nevertheless reduced in family domesticity with a physically and emotionally absent husband.
Bill’s way with words eventually pays for a cottage for Anne, with down-filled bedding instead of straw, and two servants who “become a kind of family”. She takes decisive action to save her children when plague threatens. She deals with family tragedy on her own. And when she finally reads the will she experiences shock, anger, and a sense of betrayal … but refuses to become a victim.
Like so much of The Bard’s own work, it all feels rather contemporary, which of course it is.
Purslow’s very watchable performance, directed by Chris Eldon Lee, plays to this perfectly. She speaks directly to her audience. She uses physical props adeptly, picking them up and casting them off as swiftly as her recollections, sometimes softening the intensity and sometimes enhancing it with powerful emotion. She makes her story believable and relevant.
The Wightman Theatre, on The Square in Shrewsbury, built as a temperance hall in 1854 and currently undergoing renovation, is an ideal setting for this English premier of Shakespeare’s Will (first produced in Canada in 2005). It has a rustic, market town, out-of-time feel to it. Just the sort of place Anne might have picked up her gawky, awkward, adolescent Bill.
Photos Mike Ashton