Mrs. Shakespeare gets her voice back, in a graveyard: Shakespeare’s Will with Thou Art Here!

Shakespeare’s Will, Thou Art Here Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“A woman dancing on a grave.”

That’s the image that inspired the roving outdoor production of Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will opening Thursday in a cemetery near you, says director Andrew Ritchie.

So decisively did that image haunt him that Ritchie, co-artistic director (with Neil Kuefler) of the “site-sympathetic Shakespeare company” Thou Art Here!, went on a tour of every graveyard in town — in the middle of winter, to boot — before he settled on the 1886 Edmonton Cemetery on 107th Ave. The old trees, and the sense of age, clinched the deal. 

The woman is a mysterious (stay-at-home) wife with a mysterious (absent) husband. He’s an artsy type with an earring who, in a rather sensational example of upstaging, turned out to be the greatest playwright of all time. And the grave is his.

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Shakespeare’s Will, which was commissioned by the Free Will Players and premiered at the Citadel in 2005, aims to give Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, a play of her own. History hasn’t been generous with Mrs. Shakespeare, in truth. And neither, it seems, was her hubby. Shakespeare’s will, dated March 25, 1616,  infamously left her his “second-best bed with the furniture.” 

Not that our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life — apart from bills of sale and other legal accounting details — is exactly fulsome (it’s alluringly elusive for a famous man). But our knowledge of Anne is even scantier, to say the least. At 26, the farmer’s daughter from outside Stratford was six years older that her teenage husband, and pregnant, when they got married in 1582. We know about the birth of Susanna in 1583 and the twins Hamlet and Judith two years later. We know that by the late 1580s Shakespeare was living the celeb theatre life in London, his career rocketing, while his wife stayed in Stratford with the kids. And that’s about it. 

The rest is up for grabs by theatre artists — like the playwright (Thiessen is the artistic director of Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre). “This is not us trying to tell an historically accurate tale,” says actor/ choreographer Gianna Vacirca of Thiessen’s speculative play. “This is about a wife trying to find herself, to find the definition of herself outside a man…. Shakespeare couldn’t have lived the life he lived without her; she gave him a normal life so he could go off and have romance, success, art, elaborate relationships with patrons….” 

Anne is interested in the husband, not what the husband writes for a living. “She doesn’t know the plays, and doesn’t care to know them. In fact no Shakespeare play is mentioned” in Shakespeare’s Will, says Ritchie. The only writing that’s included, as he points  out, is Sonnet 145, that includes wordplay on Anne’s maiden name.  Says Ritchie, “Anne actively, independently chooses to be with him. And she still ends up being screwed over by the whole thing….” Shakespeare’s Will, he thinks, “talks about the role of women in society; with every choice and freedom, a woman still gets fucked over.”

As the play opens Anne is returning from the great man’s funeral, clutching the unopened will. She remembers everything in flashbacks; “she’s constantly re-living the past as a loop, images and words that constantly return her to the will,” as Ritchie puts it. 

Shakespeare’s Will, Thou Art Here Theatre. Photo by Nico Humby.

Thou Art Here! aims for close-up encounters between audiences and Shakespeare. Ritchie and Kuefler have taken productions to such unexpected locations as the late lamented ARTery bar club; we bellied up to the bar next to Falstaff himself in The Falstaff Project, a Thou Art Here! version of Henry IV Part One. They’ve taken Shakespeare drinking scenes to tables in Whyte Avenue bars. At historic Rutherford House the characters of Much Ado About Nothing had the run of the place, balconies included, and we trailed along. And now a cemetery: for Shakespeare’s Will, the graveyard site itself conjures memory, says Ritchie. It’s “a reverent place” where the irreverence of the play — “with its talk of sex, lovers, infidelity, secrets,” as Vacirca puts it — can shine.

The premiere production, directed by Geoffrey Brumlik, starred Jan Alexandra Smith alone onstage. In Ritchie’s revival, five actors play Anne — and all the people we meet through Anne’s eyes, including Shakespeare, his sister Joan (Anne can’t stand her), her disapproving father, her daughters and son….

“She’s an ideal partner for an artist,” grins Vacirca. “Every artist would want an Anne! They can go out, do their art, come back, feel special, not feel threatened…. She’s not resentful he’s an artist; Anne just wants him to be more present in her life.”

Vacirca, an actor/dancer who made her Thou Art Here! debut as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, has collaborated with Ritchie in choreographing a production full of physical movement. Erik Mortimer has created music (Dave Clarke’s original score was destroyed in a fire).

The idea of having multiple actors play Anne and share the storytelling isn’t new, explain Ritchie and Vacirca. There have been productions of Thiessen’s widely travelled play with four actors. Five, though, is a Thou Art Here! innovation. “Since it’s a play about giving voice to a woman, I think we can give more universality and more colour to that voice if there are more people playing her,” says Ritchie. “More people can see more people in her…. And more more opportunity for women in our community.”

Ritchie was attracted to the “imbalance and “asymmetry” of five instead of four performers. And he had an abundance of talent to choose from, he says of auditions “All the actors could dance, all could act, all could sing!” 

As Ritchie and Vacirca mused over drinks last week, in an era of small casts there are hints of change, not least because theatre artists are getting more ingenious about production design — and in the case of Thou Art Here!, venue. “More bodies onstage! The way to have magic is through people!” says Vacirca. 

“It’s insane!” says Ritchie happily of the five-actor production. “We have NO money. And this is the smallest-cast show we’ve ever done….”

PREVIEW

Shakespeare’s Will

Theatre: Thou Art Here!

Written by: Vern Thiessen

Directed by: Andrew Ritchie, with choreography by Gianna Vacirca and music by Erik Mortimer

Starring: Kristi Hansen, Ainsley Hillyard, Maddie Knight, Kristen Padayas, Rebecca Sadowski

Where: Edmonton Cemetery 11820 107 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Sept. 30

Tickets: yeglive.ca or at the Cemetery on the night of performance. Booking advisable (audience max, 40).

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