August 15, 2007
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'Shakespeare's Will' hard to believe
By -- Sun Media


STRATFORD -- Even when it's rooted firmly in fact, theatre at its most basic is all about make-believe.

And the further removed from fact it becomes, the harder a playwright must work to convince an audience that what they are watching is not simply a figment of the playwright's overheated imagination.

In the case of Shakespeare's Will -- a one-act, one-character play by Vern Theissen that opened on the stage of the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre earlier this summer -- the facts are pretty straightforward.

Nearly four centuries after her death, very little is known about Anne Hathaway, save for the fact that, for a portion of her allotted time on earth -- from 1556 to 1623, to be precise -- she was also known as Mrs. William Shakespeare, the mother of three children, all presumably his. Based on surviving historical documents, one might also intuit that, judged by today's standards, her husband was perhaps less than generous to her at his death, although further study of the period also indicates that he may have left her only the second-best bed for the simple reason that, as a major piece of furniture, the best bed was always reserved for guests, rendering the second-best bed the matrimonial bed by reasons of default.

Whatever Shakespeare's reasoning, those few facts, along with the accepted knowledge that Hathaway was older than her celebrated husband and was, as they say, with child, at the time of their marriage, serve as the foundation of Thiessen's play.

Set on the day of Shakespeare's funeral, Shakespeare's Will stars Seana McKenna in a heartfelt turn as the widow Shakespeare. The action kicks off as she returns from her late husband's funeral, his will, given to her at the service by her mean-spirited sister-in-law, clutched firmly in her hand.

Rather than open it, however, she sets it aside and loses herself instead in memories of an often troubled marriage, recalling everything from their meeting at a village fair through the death of their only son and their various individual philanderings, his with un-named men, hers with pretty much all comers.

Problem is, not much of it rings true, either to the heart or to the period of the piece. McKenna is beautifully costumed for the Elizabethan era, courtesy of designer Peter Hartwell, and moving around his bizarre set under the direction of Miles Potter she gives a deeply committed performance. lending dimension and depth to a woman who has endured a troubled life and a troubled marriage.

Despite her commendable work, however, the script from which she is working fails to give her the material to convince us that she is indeed who she claims to be, and not some theatrical Anastasia, posing as the widow of the greatest playwright in the English canon.

The problem isn't the lack of Elizabethan language -- although one suspects that even though she and her husband spent a lot of time apart, Hathaway might have found a more creative sobriquet than a simple "bitch" on her despised sister-in-law. Nor is it her love of the sea and her periodic escapes thereto, although all of that does seem odd when one thinks of the geographic location of Stratford-upon-Avon. It's not even about the assertions that Shakespeare was a practising bisexual (and apparently he didn't need a lot of practice) or that Hathaway was a less than faithful wife.

Finally, it comes down to the script itself and the way in which Thiessen takes the few facts known about Hathaway's life and spins them into a whole cloth that doesn't fit.

As director Potter observes in the program notes: "(This play) could be about any woman whose husband is away working."

And in the end, that's pretty much all you need to know.

3 out of 5



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