Theatre Review: Simon Callow in Being Shakespeare

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Simon Callow (@Stephanie Berger)

How It’s New York: Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) briefly hosts Simon Callow’s one-man hit show, Being Shakespeare, transferred transatlantic after a long run on London’s West End.

How It’s Irish: Callow attended Queens University Belfast, before dropping out to become an actor. And William Shakespeare, a few years before he died, bought a flat in London–in Ireland Yard! “It’s still there” in the Blackfriars area, the audience learns.

The play runs through April 14 only.  Tickets here!

 Orla O’Sullivan reviews Simon Callow in a  one-man show by Jonathan Bate, Being Shakespeare

“…he gives speeches from Shakepeare that you have heard many times, but never like this, so natural and convincing”   


Even Shakespeare felt like a failure. Married at 18, a father by 19, William Shakespeare felt washed up by the time he was 40, his writing suggests.
At least those attributed to the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon. The one thing Being Shakespeare does not get into is the possibility of him not being Shakespeare. Conspiracy theories were ignited afresh by the movie Anonymous that came out in late 2011.
The show traces Shakespeare’s life showing his writing entwined with events of the day from 1564 to 1616.
The play breaks down Shakespeare’s 52-year span on earth into “the seven ages of man,” he identified in As You Like It. They run from “infant” to “second childhood,” a cycle wherein, per King Lear, “old fools are babes again”. 
The museum in Stratford-upon-Avon took a similar approach, I recall from my teenage visit. That, and the fact that Charles Dickens’ initials could still be seen where he engraved them in the window of the cottage Shakespeare shared with Anne Hathaway and their surviving children. 
Shakespeare did bounce back from his depression at 40 and enjoyed a creative renaissance. However, when he died in tiny Stratford, (pop.: 1,500) his passing barely registered in London. Meanwhile, another playwright of the day was given a state funeral.

Shakespeare was now “yesterday’s man,” Callow tells the audience, poignantly drawing to a close the tale of his life with a quote from The Tempest: “Our little life is rounded unto sleep”.

Unjust deserts for the man whose 40 plays are still produced, and 154 sonnets often quoted.

Clearly a genius, Shakepeare was a writer with business acumen. He established a theater based on shareholders, was a landlord and commodities investor, and ended life a wealthy man.
Shakespeare also invented the word “puking” and was an early contributor to the the lawyer joke genre.
The show has plenty of such fun trvia, also noting that grammar school got its name from the fact that all Elizabethan boys were taught was grammar (Latin). This with a view to developing their power of rhetoric.
The play’s highlight arguably was a section where lines from Shakespeare were presented as examples of the various constitutents of rhetoric—fascinating testimony to the playwright’s knowledge of Shakespeare (Jonathan Bate has also written a book, The Genius of Shakespeare).
Callow’s talent is at its most evident when he gives speeches from Shakespeare that you have heard many times, but never like this, so natural and convincing, be it Antony after Caesar’s death (“yet Brutus says he was ambitious”) or Juliette addressing Romeo from the balcony. She is so ardent, so innocent, so teenage girl–not 53-year old man!
Tom Cairn’s spare set design set design, consisting of a wooden “stage upon the stage,” is also great.  It includes  a few props projected to dramatic effect on the back wall. When Shakespeare dies, Callow throws sand onto a small globe with a huge shadow. Trees on tage advance from the back to the front between the first and final act. By appearing larger, they suggest the passage of time.
Unfortunately, the second act doesn’t have quite the pace of the first, but that’s a small crib for such a satisfying experience overall.
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Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts