I think we can all agree that the life of William Shakespeare has perhaps been a bit over-glamourized. I don’t know about you, but I have this vision of Shakespeare sitting around, writing sonnets and plays and enjoying all the benefits that the reputation he has in the 21st century should surely have bestowed upon him.
And then When That I Was… came in and brought me back to reality – that’s not what it was like at all. When That I Was… is a look at Shakespeare’s life through the eyes of one of the players who lived through the glory days, and who is now dealing with the fallout of Puritanical legislation forbidding theatre performances.
Actor Christopher Hunt (Jack Rice) and Director Vanessa Porteous have both won awards for their roles in the play, and it’s easy to see why. From a technical standpoint, the play was very well done. Christopher Hunt’s flexibility as an actor was amazing and was one of the things that made the show for me. Changing from himself as a young boy to his present self as a grown man; from Richard Burbage (a Shakespearian player) to Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife); from Shakespeare’s female lover, “the Dark Lady“, to his male lover, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton – these different characterizations expanded the show beyond the one-dimensionality that sometimes rears its head in a one-man show. Hunt’s vocal flexibility and ability to rapidly adopt many different physical characteristics (stooping, manner of walking, gestures, etc.) are truly impressive.
The lighting and stage design were another highlight of the show – upon first walking into the theatre, you are greeted by the ghostly set. As the play continues, you come to realize that the set itself is an embodiment of the story – an old, patchy recollection of much better times. The lighting itself is also fantastic, providing a huge aide to Christopher Hunt’s multiple personalities by using lighting that falls precisely on Hunt’s face, transforming him from the broken-down John Rice to the stately William Shakespeare. The lighting also aides in the set’s “ghostly” impression, and so it does not come as a surprise that both were designed by the same person – Terry Gunvordahl.
However, while the actor and the technical elements of the play were great, the plot left me a bit underwhelmed. Through the course of the play, I tried to figure out why it wasn’t engaging me. Part of it could have been the day I was having, another part could have been that the rest of the audience didn’t seem very engaged (I know there were some parts where we all missed our cue to laugh), but I think the bigger picture was I didn’t know where the play was going. I knew it was going to be the story of Shakespeare’s life, de-mystified and de-glamourized, but I didn’t know what the bigger picture was. Why does it matter that we understand the life of Shakespeare?
At the end of the play, I didn’t feel like I knew Shakespeare any better than I did at the beginning. Part of that can be attributed to his story being told in third person, which is better, I’ll admit, than inferring things about the Bard from what was written in his plays. Better, but still not entirely effective.
– Jenna Marynowski