Simon Callow sidles into the “Seven Ages of Man,” rather like a penitent don, which is a very different approach to the one he adopted in Edinburgh last summer, and light years away from John Gielgud’s tremulous one-man Shakespeare show.
In Edinburgh, Callow came on all rather Bardic and bumptious, with a beard and a flowing white blouson, and a stage full of properties never fully explained. Director Tom Cairns has obliterated all the nonsense and, as if in celebration, the Trafalgar Studios have even installed new and much more comfortable red seating.
Whereas once he seemed to be claiming credit for Shakespeare – and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the show even then – now Callow is taking a more modest mediating role, elucidating Jonathan Bate’s careful and uncontroversial text with sudden infusions of poetry.
There are revelatory, grief-stricken speeches from King John and Venus and Adonis, the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, an extract of Falstaff (the “honour” speech), a taster of a more overall splendour in the role, and even Sir Thomas More’s speech in defence of immigrants from a disputed play in the canon.
Best of all, Bate and Callow between them submit a portrait of Shakespeare that is sensible, and plausible, explaining his background, his father’s status in Stratford, his education at the grammar school, his relationship with the Forest of Arden, north of the town, an area now overrun with motorways and Little Chefs. But the man still remains elusive, enigmatic, unknowable, except as someone familiar with grief.
Callow remains anxious to communicate the poetry’s beauty, from cradle to grave, meeting his proper self perhaps in the fifth age as a justice, “full of wise saws and modern instances.” From there it is but a small step to the slippered pantaloon and second childhood.
Having embraced the format, Callow can only hint at a more melodramatic outcome in the “lost years” preferring to emphasise such personal details as marriage to a much older woman (Anne Hathaway, the farmer’s daughter in Shottery, not the Hollywood actress), the twins he sired, the son he lost, the fields he rented. He refuses to be drawn on wild speculation about authorship or spying activities.
He remains admirably controlled throughout, calling the shots but never quite pulling the trigger – except, perhaps, as the most miscast Orlando in the history of the National Theatre; but, guess what – he very nearly makes you want to see him play it again.