The controversy over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is one of the great conspiracy theories. Maybe not the subject of as much curiosity as the assassination of President Kennedy, the Roswell landings and the death of Diana but there’s enough material to keep the keenest obsessive occupied for hours. Given that the Internet is a natural home for all such conspiracy theorists, Mark Rylance’s idea of combining the Internet and the authorship debate is a good one. But while the idea might be sound, the execution is dreadful.
The plot, such as it is, centres on English teacher Frank Charlton, a devotee of Shakespeare who holds a weekly Internet TV programme on the authorship question. His beliefs are shaken up after a visit from Shakespeare and some of the usual suspects.
The main problem is that Rylance seems to be confused about what the play should be. Is it a straightforward whodunit - seeking the author from a pile of suspects until the Poirot-like denouement? Or is it an examination of the process of writing: how do we separate the author from his/her life? Rylance wants to have it both ways and the play is unbalanced as a result of this.
The other weakness is that rather than examining the claims of one of the claimants, he wants to look at them all. In order to make the case for each of them, Charlton barks out supporting facts, but at such a speed that the audience can’t really take it all in.
In the end, rather than come up with a single author, the play proposes a group option where a committee of leading aristocrats had ghosted the plays of Shakespeare (and Webster too). In a nod to The Da Vinci Code, they were part of a secret conspiracy to cover up the fact that they were all illegitimate children of Elizabeth I.The only thing missing was the Holy Grail - perhaps they used it as an ink-well. However, if Shakespeare’s plays really were authored by a cabal of illegitimate aristocrats, then bastards would surely be more heroic characters rather than the inevitable villains.
In short, this is the sort of self-indulgent tosh that would be lucky to make the end-of-term show at a drama school. What’s worse is so many of the players have given some excellent work. Mark Rylance himself, The Right Size’s Sean Foley, who appears to think he’s in a sit-com, a sort of Elizabethan Stella Street, and Colin Hurley, who does his best to bring Shakespeare to life.
The production is co-directed by Matthew Warchus and Rylance – another mistake. It needed a stronger hand on the tiller – for a start, the play is at least a half an hour too long as it rambles to a conclusion. This could have been interesting, perhaps it should have been interesting - yet, the pity of it, oh, the pity of it.
- Maxwell Cooter