By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Thou Art Here!, a company that does Shakespeare meet-and-greets in unexpected locations, takes us to a graveyard. It’s dusk. Five ghostly women appear through the trees in the distance and come towards us.
As the daylight fades, they’ll hoist black umbrellas and lead us through the cemetery — a haunted place by very definition and the natural home of the flashback.
What an imaginative location for an encounter with the mystery woman who stars in Shakespeare’s Will — a play that finds its insights (and its rich easeful poetry) in blending past and present, an imagined time and our own, speculation and fact.
Meet Mrs. Shakespeare. Not for her the “power couple” designation. Not for her the credit when interviewers ask her hubby “so where do you get your ideas anyhow?” Nope. In the meagre catalogue of what we know about Anne Hathaway — six years older than her teenage husband, pregnant when they married, had three children, stayed in Stratford when Shakespeare went off to London to become … Shakespeare — one item shimmers with mysterious humiliation. It’s Will’s will, in which he left her his “second-best bed, with all the furniture.”
What does it mean? Is it a hint about their relationship? Is it a code? Is it meaningful? Shakespeare’s Will wonders about that, and spins backwards to their first meeting.
The first time I saw Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will in 2005, as a solo creation for one virtuoso actor, it seemed to me something of a limitation that it was so obviously fuelled by our fascination with every rare and tantalizing detail about someone not in the play — Anne’s famous absentee husband. And unlike, say, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, with its baffled worm’s-eye view of a celebrated (and familiar) play, it seemed to leave us with homey household details about an everywoman, most of them speculative, when we secretly wanted something else.
I have to say I feel differently now. In Andrew Ritchie’s artful roving Thou Art Here! production in Edmonton Cemetery — which takes to heart Anne’s mantra about always “moving on” — five vivid, lively actors share the role of Anne. And they do it up close, looking you in the eye, engaging your responses. And the multiple presence seems somehow to give the character more heft, more dimensionality, more ownership of a play about an essentially contemporary woman in a familiar bind — in love with a man who’s in love with the way she enables him to be fully in love with his career.
Poor Anne. Give her the gears for being an enabler, if you will. But she’s in a tough spot, historically speaking, since the career she enabled gave the world Hamlet and As You Like It. In Shakespeare’s Will Bill (as she calls him, in determinedly unliterary fashion) saves his words for theatre. You’ll appreciate the irony of Anne’s first encounter with Bill : she finds him “a man of few words.” Later, as his career takes off in London, his letters home are amusingly short on wordsmith magic: “Dearest Anne: Hope to be home next month. Much love, Bill.” Her bemusement shades into exasperation, but Anne knows how to divert herself. Like her husband, as she tells us, she likes boys. “Lots and lots of men….”
Interestingly, Ritchie’s production doesn’t assign specific facets of Anne’s story — the older and more experienced lover, the daughter of a disapproving father, the mother of three, the neglected wife, the head of the Stratford household — to individual actors. Shakespeare’s Will, in this Thou Art Here! incarnation, is a collective experience, moment to moment, scene to scene, shared amongst Kristi Hansen, Kristen Padayas, Rebecca Sadowski, Maddy Knight and Ainsley Hillyard, all excellent.
This will sound confusing, I realize, and a little in love with artifice, in theory. But in practice, from the swirl of music, dance, text, and even shadow-play, the portrait of a likeable, resilient, rather shrewd, earthy woman emerges — one who doesn’t give a hoot about her husband’s plays, apparently and who isn’t prepared to take a night course in iambic pentameter.
The only unconventional thing about Anne in Shakespeare’s Will is their marriage pre-nup, “to allow each other the other’s life.” It gives Bill the theatre (and vice versa). It gives Anne the life of a small-town single mother with a perpetually absent husband and three kids. Ah yes, and in the end, his “second-best bed.” Shakespeare’s Will has a theory about that mystery indignity, and builds, rather ingeniously, towards it.
Ritchie’s direction, and Gianna Vacirca’s choreography, are admirably inventive in finding graceful ways to share the storytelling, sometimes individually, sometimes chorally, sometimes a bit of both. Vacirca’s movement and dance design and the a cappella score devised by Erik Mortimer allude atmospherically to the period. The folded-up unread will (passed back and forth between actors and audience members) and the funereal black umbrellas (lit from beneath as darkness falls) are the crucial visual devices in Sarah Karpyshin’s design.
By the terms of Ritchie’s production it’s the actors themselves, appealing performers all, who nudge the audience to follow them through the graveyard, sometimes with a hand on your shoulder, a come-hither wave, or a meaningful look. And along with the motif of Anne’s fascination with the sea and water, their charm propels the story backwards and forwards, and smooths the seams between narration and the dramatic encounters into which the actors slide.
Against the backdrop of our fascination with unaccountable genius, we meet a woman of unexceptional modern configurations, with modest dreams and frustrations we can recognize. “What is it about men, eh?” Anne asks us. Ponder and empathize. It’s an entertaining, and intriguing, evening.
Thou Art Here! is back this week in action after untimely interventions by the wintry elements which cancelled performances Friday and Saturday. Proper autumn is back. Bundle up, wear gloves; the actors do. And have a peek at 12thnight.ca’s preview interview with director Andrew Ritchie and choreographer Gianna Vacirca.
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: through Sept. 30