About a week ago one of my dearest friends invited me to go and see Simon Callow perform "a Shakespeare monologue thing". I wasn't really sure what this meant, but I knew that if it was Simon Callow performing then it was bound to be spectacular. Was I wrong? Of course not. And so on Tuesday I went with Charlotte and her family to the Trafalgar Studios, signposted clearly for us by the enormous posters depicting Callow's face alongside that of Shakespeare himself.
It all started with Mr Callow walking out fairly solemnly onto a stage decorated with a few simple props and a couple of trees in the background. As earlier mentioned, I didn't really know what to expect from it, so even though any time allowed for anticipation was short, I still felt myself leaning closer to the stage (not too hard considering we were fortunate enough to have front row seats), and waiting for his first words.
It turned out to be Callow telling us about Shakespeare's life from birth to death, referred to as his "seven ages". Along the way, Callow would perform short extracts from different Shakespeare plays, and not just male monologues. Though his portrayal of Mark Anthony from Julius Caesar ("Friends, Romans, countrymen; lend me your ears") had me sitting in utter awe, I can safely say he was just as good at hopping to and fro acting both Romeo and Juliet in the scene where Romeo first visits Juliet ("what light through yonder window breaks") as she looks out for him, remembering their time spent together at the dance ("O Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou Romeo?") The second act was finished off with a monologue from King Lear, which had both Charlotte and I nearly reduced to tears. And then he snapped back into the storytelling aspect of the show and wiped away the tears as if they had meant nothing at all. Truly inspiring.
I found it particularly interesting, though not altogether surprising, that a lot of phrases or sequences from Shakespeare's plays were taken from his own life and his own experiences. The quality of his work was marked by his bouts of happiness or sadness, his great rebound shown by classics such as The Tempest; he hadn't lost his touch.
Callow didn't go into Shakespeare's sexuality, i.e. homosexuality, though he did talk about his wife of many years named (coincidentally) Anne Hathaway, and also his children. What was particularly distressing was the death of his son, Hamnet, which happened around the same time as the writing of Hamlet, an infamously tragic play. Nor did Callow go into this whole hullaballoo about whether Shakespeare did or did not write his own plays. All he said was that Shakespeare had indeed shamelessly stole ideas and words from a few playwrights at the start of his career, since he started out in the theatre business by patching up others' work, so really he was bound to steal something (though I know it is still not entirely justifiable).
If you can manage to get your hands on a pair of not too pricey tickets to see Being Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate I really would recommend it. If you think from this review that it is just Simon Callow bellowing about Shakespeare and his life, it's not, and I apologise for giving you the wrong impression. Callow acts nearly all the parts worth playing that Shakespeare has ever written, snapping in and out of character as if it is the easiest thing in the world. If you are not an actor yourself, trust me, it isn't easy to do that and make it convincing. Callow succeeds superbly.