Alan Plater’s new play Sweet William is a triumphant vindication of the approach to playwriting that develops in the needs and talents of a particular group of performers, not the lonely inspiration of the study. Starting from the proposition that Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” would be more entertaining companions than his tragic heroes, Plater fully exploits the abilities of Northern Broadsides’ multi-tasking company of 14 assembled for The Comedy of Errors.
At the Tabard Inn, several of Will’s friends, recognisably second cousins of characters in the plays, wait for him to return from the premiere of Henry V. Plot lines occasionally develop but are of no great importance: a commedia dell’arte clown proves to be a woman aiming for a stage career (girls dressed as boys – whatever next?), Nicholas the thief is threatened with arrest, and so on. What’s more important thematically is the debate on Shakespeare’s use of these low-lifes. Is he treating the Tabard as a combined theme-park and quarry, stealing their characters and changing the name of the inn to the Boar’s Head to appeal to the aristocrats he now associates with?
The result is a totally successful fusion of text, production, song and design, with everything from the running gags to the mix-and-match costumes and furniture (Giuseppe Belli and Emma Barrington-Binns) enjoying the same anachronistic dislocation. Songs, with music by Conrad Nelson, include a drinking song with hints of Celtic folk song, a sort-of-Blues about the lack of career opportunities for women (except as Queen) and a charming setting of Feste’s final song from Twelfth Night, the last two splendidly performed by Claire Storey as the Clown (Storey’s conjuring tricks aren’t bad either).
Director Barrie Rutter leads his own production as Fat Jack, complaining that his ‘alter ego’ Falstaff has just been killed off – and off stage, too! But it’s very much an ensemble piece, with especially notable contributions from Richard Standing (the knowing innocent who’s painting the Boar’s Head sign – or is it a sheep?), Andrew Cryer and Conor Ryan echoing each other as twin bellows-menders, and Sarah Parks’ resourceful innkeeper, a sort of Mistress Quickly prototype.
Interestingly, Conrad Nelson’s Will does not appear until 50 minutes in, an example of suspended entry that ranks with Moliere’s Tartuffe. But Shakespeare is there throughout: in quotations, teasing half-quotations, even visual echoes of the chiding of Prince Hal by Falstaff as his father.
I suspect that Sweet William may be too company-specific to attract many revivals – all the more reason, therefore, to catch it on its three-months-plus national tour.