Listen, don’t mention Christopher Marlowe! I mentioned him once, but I think I got away with it all right…. So! It’s all forgotten now, and let’s hear no more about it. So, that’s two grated Tamburlaines, a Jew of Malta, a Doctor Faustus, and four Dido salads.
I suppose with a title like Mrs Shakespeare, a show like this was bound to attract Will (and Chris (and Ben)) aficionados (like me!) – so why only a dozen or so in the audience at The Bear Pit? Were the rest “i’ th’ other place” – or simply (this being the first Saturday night of the summer holidays) filling Stratford-upon-Avon’s many eateries: consuming “the food of love” (or just stuck on a motorway “In congregations, to yawn, be still, and wonder”…)? Whatever the answer, those poor souls (assuming they hadn’t seen it earlier in the week) missed out on an hour of intelligently hilarious, devastatingly tragic, powerfully insightful, full-on, perfectly-presented, multi-layered drama – not only theatre as entertainment; but, again – for me, at least – theatre as therapy. [And, rather cunningly, (failing) therapy as (successful) theatre.]
I make no apologies, therefore, for quoting a huge chunk of the Doctor Faustus review that precedes this (and which you will also find if you click that link, directly above) – as it applies fully, here, as well:
I go to be challenged. I go to have my mind opened; my heart broken; my soul riven. I go to be educated. I go to weep; to grow – emotionally and psychologically – to laugh; to discover my place in the world that is created in front of me, as well as its relevance to the troubling complexities that exist beyond its literal and figurative bounds. I go to be absorbed into that new interior world; to escape from the old exterior one. I go to be distracted from my constant pain with an injection of a different sort of masochistic agony. I go to retain my sanity. I go to witness and admire deities transform themselves beyond the ken of us mere mortals; to mark miracles. I go to be shocked; to have my opinions and beliefs confirmed, or challenged and transformed; to see and hear and feel things that I have never seen and heard and felt before. And may never see and hear and feel again. I go because it is incredible, unreal: but also because I know I will still believe. I go because I know that, each and every time, I will emerge transformed. In other words, I go to connect to everything I am not; to have my life enriched. I go because it is Art; because Art is humankind’s greatest invention; its saving grace; its redemption; and because it speaks to me so directly, as only Art can. I also go, because, to be blunt, it is so bloody awesome!
In a way, the title of this post – a device from the play itself – sums up the contents of the evening quite neatly. I have a feeling, though – backed up by Google’s statistics (if anyone mentions “damned lies”, they can leave now…) – that people don’t come here for pithy four-word reviews. (Or, if they do, they are bound to be sorely perturbed and disappointed… – and frequently by a factor of several hundred.)
The almost unbelievably versatile Irene Kelleher, as the eponymous Mrs Shakespeare (yup, she really was christened ‘William’ by the Bard-fixated parents who we are led to believe drove her to her current dire straits) is as energetic and fizzy as Puck (if you’re reading this aloud to someone, please be careful…) – at once petite and vulnerable as Ophelia; the next moment – with just the closing of a Freudian eye – authoritative and menacing as Oberon; sometimes as quick and quirky as Touchstone; or as opinionated and simperingly long-winded as Polonius – just one of the many voices she hears internally, and proclaims with pitch-perfect gusto. (One could, indeed, say that she is one of “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral scene individable, or poem unlimited…”; and without exaggeration: not only for bundling all these into one too-short hour – in which she really does visibly age and gradually mentally unwind – but particularly as she continually juggles this variety simultaneously and successfully – unlike the poor bouncing Yoricks.) [At last! I’ve found a name for my touring theatre company! Yay!]
Her shouts (and whispers) of “Who am I?” – are they Ophelia’s; or are they her’s…? – though, are as traumatic and piercing as Lear’s mournful “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” – especially when she locks her glistening eyes on yours, and just won’t let go. (Gosh: this is brave stuff. Are you staring into her heart; or is she – more likely – interrogating yours…?) The expanding, expansive repetition of that question at so many pitches, and with such a devastating mix of emotions, thus becomes as soul-rending as his “Never, never, never, never, never.” (This is possibly the most difficult line in the Shakespeare canon to deliver – but I have a feeling that Kelleher, with her magnificently huge range of physical and vocal talents, would dissolve us all instantly to grief-stricken puddles with her rendition.)
I don’t know if it helped that I saw the RSC’s current nigh-on-perfect production of Hamlet for the third time on Thursday; or that I now know, from personal experience, so damned much about mental health (or its lack). All I can say for certain (but, probably from your perspective, with intense subjectivity) is that writer and director Ian Wild grabs both by the scruff – the ruff?! – of their necks, whilst wearing his knowledge lightly; bangs their heads together (sometimes quite violently – the oft-cartoonish nature not reducing the impact one iota); and emerges with something incredibly bruising, but immensely entertaining (as funny as Titus Andronicus, yet as tragic as The Merry Wives of Windsor…). There is a mass of intelligence bubbling beneath the surface of this script; as well as a plethora of what might be raw and open psychological wounds.
It is hard to imagine that Wild hasn’t experienced some of these issues himself. But, of course, he could just be a brilliant researcher; and the world’s best transformer of third-party information into gob-smackingly potent drama. I really don’t know. (And it really doesn’t matter.) All that counts, and all that I am conscious of, is that – with Kelleher’s mesmerizing, all-guns-blazing delivery – he hits his multiple targets over and over again with profound accuracy. Who knew that dissociative identity disorder could be so much fun (and yet without once insulting its sufferers – in fact, showing a keen comprehension of their plights, as well as unadulterated empathy)? Of course there’s an “up the arras” joke… – but the belly-laughs this provokes only underlines the agony of delusion, the pain of psychosis, with its acute antithesis.
The pacing of the play – and Kelleher’s transformation from someone to laugh at, then laugh with; to someone you sympathize with; identify with; want to rescue (knowing you can’t – these are her demons…); feel pity for (as well as feeling anger at the ‘treatment’ that fails her – a system you know is all too real…) – is perfection itself. That you leave with more questions than answers – whilst weighed down with jollity, if you will – is a demonstration of its energy and brutal, subtly-crescendoing effectiveness. As I’ve probably said many times before (as have, I am sure, so many others): comedy isn’t funny without a continual thread of adversity; and tragedy isn’t sad without the stout opposition of humour. (We left Hamlet, on Thursday afternoon, dabbing away the weeping that Horatio’s howls at Hamlet’s death had provoked. And yet the frequent tears of laughter had been, in many ways, just as scalding.)
I wish I had seen this earlier. It has the authority of a modern parable. And I am sure I would therefore have returned again and again. (Yes – however different – it has the potential, I feel, to be just as addictive – for me, anyhow – as nine-times-viewed Faustus.) It just shows what dramatic power can be achieved with minimal – but massively effective – props (the cunning set is by Davy Dummigan and Dowtcha Puppets); and an ingenious, insightful script – especially when delivered by a single, enthralling, multi-gifted actor.
From the play’s Facebook page, it would appear that it tours frequently – indeed, this is its second visit to Shakespearetown… – so it’s probably worth keeping an eye out for (cue Duke of Gloucester joke), if I haven’t, somehow, put you off. Seriously, it is incredibly funny. And vice versa. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. Honestly. It is that good. (Only more so.)