A life in “the second best bed”: Shakespeare’s Will

It’s been 402 years since William Shakespeare died, leaving his wife, Anne Hathaway,  his “second best bed” in his will.

Thirteen years ago, Vern Thiessen’s play, Shakespeare’s Will, premièred at the Citadel Theatre, and while it’s since been produced in other cities, it’s hasn’t returned to Edmonton until later this month when Thou Art Here Theatre puts their signature site-specific twist on the work.

In Shakespeare’s Will, Anne relives moments from her marriage to William and her life raising their three children while her husband’s career took off in London Upon reading her husband’s will though, Anne realizes William has betrayed her and their marriage vows from beyond the grave and decides how to move forward following his death.

What setting could be more perfect for this show than the Historic 1886 Edmonton Cemetary, where Thou Art Here Theatre’s team will perform the show September 19 – 30. Andrew Ritchie, one of Thou Art Here’s Artistic Directors and the Director of Shakespeare’s Will, says he imagined staging the play in a cemetery following an image that appeared to him immediately after reading the play: “I had the immediate image of Anne Hathaway dancing on the grave of William Shakespeare, so I walked to a couple cemeteries in town. I have always found cemeteries very powerful places to be in, very evocative of times in our lives, and I immediately fell in love with the idea of having the show take place in a cemetery with Anne Hathaway opening the will there and seeing her journey from the gravesite to her decision to read the will.”

Beyond just being about the contents of William Shakespeare’s will, Andrew says for him, the play is really about giving a voice to someone who has traditionally been seen as a supporting character in the Bard’s life. “I think [the play is] Vern’s artistic exploration of one woman and her journey and struggle to define herself and find meaning outside of her husband. She pushes back against the narrative where she is just defined as Shakespeare’s wife. I think this play is very much about Anne Hathaway fighting for herself and finding meaning in her own life, which I see a lot of women in my life doing in today’s world where we’re talking a lot about people’s roles in society historically and pushing back against those narratives and trying to take power back.”

To that end, rather than casting the show as a one-woman show (as originally written), Anne Hathaway is played by five wonderful actors: Kristi Hansen, Ainsley Hillyard, Maddy Knight, Kristen Padayas, and Rebecca Sadowski. Together, the actors each bring their own experience and aesthetic to the role, forming a sort of Greek chorus that brings a depth of dimension to the character. Andrew says, “They’re all finding themselves in the character and vice versa and so the play will find more universality as more people can see themselves in the character.”

Increasing the access points to the show, the production features choreography by Gianna Vacirca and original music by Erik Mortimer (the original score was lost in a fire). Andrew says, “It’s a marriage between contemporary and Elizabethan music and movement… Eric Mortimer composed and arranged new music for this piece, taking inspiration from Elizabethan music, but technically older music since the play takes place in Stratford, which would have been behind London, culturally. All the songs have a different feel to them. Gianna Vacirca choreographed the show and brought in a lot of ideas, but she takes the actor’s impulses and continues to create and sculpt from there.”

Taken together, Andrew says, the combination of the contemporary and Elizabethan elements create a tension between “constraint and freedom, between expectation and desire, and having choice and not having choice. I think something I want people to take away is that even though Anne Hathaway had a lot of privilege for a woman of this time… she ends up getting fucked in many ways in the end by the fact that Will still has so much more power than her. There’s the element of that despite having freedom of choice, there is still a true imbalance… He wouldn’t have gotten what he did without her, he needed her.”

Being a site-specific theatre show, this production of Shakespeare’s Will will pay tribute to the 1886 Cemetery by guiding audience members throughout the cemetery during the performance and Thou Art Here Theatre’s website contains detailed accessibility information about the amount of walking and opportunities to sit during the 90-minute show.

Shakespeare’s Will runs at the Historic 1886 Edmonton Cemetary (11820 107 Avenue) September 19 – 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 – $25 through YEGLive and there are only 40 tickets per show so be sure to buy early! Andrew says that no one will be turned away due to lack of funds on any night – if you would like to see the show and can’t afford the ticket price, please contact [email protected]. Be sure to check Thou Art Here Theatre’s website for parking information as there is limited parking, and check the nightly weather forecast and come dressed for the weather.

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