nytheatre.com review by Gianfranco Lentini
August 18, 2013
A scene from William
1592. The end of the Renaissance is rapidly approaching, and the Baroque period is about to take the stage. Henry VI (Parts I-III) has been publicly performed, and the audience cries for more. William Shakespeare picks up his quill, writes Richard III into immortality, and this is where our story begins. William, the “one-man [biographical] musical about the Shakespeare you don’t know,” strikes while the iron is hot at the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival. Book, music, and lyrics in Swedish by Jan-Erick Sääf, translated into English by Owen Robertson, and directed by Andres Boonstra, this production is a testament to why [cue the music] “everyone goes to the theatre!”
William tells the story of the creation of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets and delves in between the lines to unravel the mystery that was Shakespeare’s love life. At the center of a love triangle, Shakespeare finds himself torn between the notorious Dark Lady, who’s identity is still unknown today, and Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and the man who many experts today believe may have been Shakespeare’s secret flame. Throw into the mix a sassy string quartet (three violins and one cello) featuring Stefani Collins, Sarah Koenig-Ploskier, Caterina Longhi, and Bridget Pasker as well as the one and only Shakespeare with a Swedish flair (Jonas Nerbe), and this musical defies conventions that the legendary playwright himself would have deemed impossible.
Avant-garde in nature, this production of William transforms the playing space into the stage of the Globe Theatre. Traveling from London to Scotland and back, the audience is taken on a journey with Shakespeare where we meet those most important to him, notably Queen Elizabeth, Richard Burbage, and the antagonistic Christopher Marlowe, who has called our protagonist an “upstart crow” and a “beauty queen with feathers.” Displaying costumes and a set both bohemian and anachronistic for Shakespeare’s time, a pallet of red and black gives this musical an ‘80s punk flair that’s irresistible to look at. While the women of the quartet wear bright red hoopskirt frames, winged eyes, and teased hair, Nerbe sports an open shirt with rock-star, leather pants and a single pearl earring. If this production isn’t the definition of rock opera, I dare you to show me what is.
Singing his way through his sonnets, the audience develops a new understanding - if not new, then reawakened - for what it is Shakespeare may have been trying to convey centuries ago. We watch him ride both the highs and lows of his career and love life explaining one moment, “love and hate seem so close to each other,” and questioning the next, “Why is the world so hard, cold, harsh?” However, the audience never tires hearing Nerbe sing and the quartet play. Abiding strictly to the musical theatre conceit that one sings only when words aren’t enough, William perfectly times every song leaving us wanting more and never saying oh no, another song…
Finally, as Shakespeare finds the will to pick himself up and write another play, it’s time for us to leave this playwright who we’ve become so attached to in 90 short minutes. Standing before us, Nerbe takes one last look at his audience, or rather his friends, and entreats us to who Shakespeare truly was: “I, William, a lover, a fool, a poet, a murderer.” For a better understanding as to what this mean, you’ll just have to go see William for yourself.
**For the real Shakespeare veterans, here’s a small note: Though it doesn’t take away from the viewing experience of this production, the chronology of the performance skews slightly from Shakespeare’s timeline. Potentially a misdemeanor in script, plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and Macbeth fall out of timely order in the telling of this musical. However, as I stated before, it’s only minute and by the end of the performance, it helps bring William to a satisfying conclusion.