It’s less a case of sweeping the dust behind the door than offering its quintessence to the audience. Simon Callow’s new one-man show, written by the Shakespearian biographer Jonathan Bate, is as much about the man who grew up in and returned to Stratford as it is about the London-based playwright, poet and actor. The performer has to people the stage almost as fully as his subject ever did.
As one-man shows go, this is quite an elaborate staging. Designer Jeremy Herbert offers us platforms and chairs, sliding screen, a galaxy of projections, lighting and sound effects (Mike Gunning, Ben and Max Ringham, Jeremy Herbert and Steve Williams). Director Tom Cairns ensures that the whole evening keeps up its momentum, perhaps a little too much so.
Callow produces an incredibly wide range of voices and characterisations with some very subtle touches; I would love to see him play Falstaff or Sir Toby Belch just on the strength of these snippets. The second half works better than the first, for the pace is slightly slower than for the first part. The biographical detail and the explanations of the social and political background puts Shakespeare into context; you are aware of the perils of everyday existence with plagues, financial uncertainties, interfering magistracies and power struggles never far away.
A couple of fluffs in the initial scene-setting always unsettles an audience; you can’t help but listen for the next one. There’s a lot to recount, even before those first plays are written, and the educational grounding at Stratford’s grammar school and the constant bustle of localised litigation are given their proper weight. The framework for the evening is the seven ages of man as recounted by Jaques in his “All the world’s a stage" speech in As You Like It, and it works well.
If you know a lot about Shakespeare and have no difficulty in allotting the quotations to their proper characters and plays, then you’ll derive a great deal of pleasure from this show. If you just want to see one of our best actors transform himself – without costumes or make-up – into a whole sequence of men, women and children at all stages of their lives, then you’ll savour it equally, albeit in a different way. And that even if Shakespeare was something to be endured rather than enjoyed when you were imitating the schoolboy action of the snail.