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The Book of Will

Updated: May 24, 2023

Lauren Gunderson

Octagon Theatre Bolton, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Shakespeare North Playhouse

Octagon Theatre Bolton

May 17-June 2, 2023; : 2 hours 30 minutes

(also Shakespeare North Playhouse, October 19-November 11)

Russell Richardson as John Heminges, Bill Ward as Henry Condell and Zach Lee as Richard Burbage in The Book of Will at Octagon Theatre Bolton. cr Pamela Raith
Russell Richardson as John Heminges, Bill Ward as Henry Condell and Zach Lee as Richard Burbage in The Book of Will at Octagon Theatre Bolton. All pics: Pamela Raith

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It’s 400 years since the appearance of the famed “First Folio” of Shakespeare’s plays, and Bolton Octagon artistic director Lotte Wakeham chose US author Lauren Gunderson’s account of that to mark the occasion. With co-production from the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, and Prescot’s Shakespeare North Playhouse, it’s getting its European premiere run.

There’s a story to be told here, and scholars who know the history better than me seem happy with the way the known facts are woven into it (plus a few that aren’t known, such as the identity of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, clearly outed in this script).

Shakespeare’s old actor colleagues Burbage, Condell and Heminges think back on his great successes and bemoan the botched texts of pirated versions that are in circulation (with sympathetic noises from the usually-drunk Ben Jonson). They decide to gather what they can from manuscript, memory, prompt books and corrected earlier editions to have an authentic complete plays printed, Condell and Heminges carrying on after Burbage’s untimely death.

It’s a tricky business, as the only person who could afford to make it happen is already making money from poor-quality versions. But, with the help of scrivener Ralph Crane, it all works out in the end, and Jonson writes the preface.

This show’s described as “a hilarious love letter to theatre”. It isn’t. The writing’s a bit like a Horrible Histories show, with people dressed in period costume talking in modern vernacular (some of it American vernacular, such as “Let’s give this damn’ thing a try” and “Like hell they are”), but with the occasional attempt at Jacobean – calling a group of chaps “Masters!”, and the odd “Nay …”

Of course you couldn’t try to recreate 17th Century language, especially when constantly quoting Shakespeare’s own most famous lines themselves, but something feels odd about it.

It's not just the language: the ideas, too, seem full of jarring anachronisms. Would Shakespeare’s contemporaries have worried about “funding”, about getting a “return” or “a percentage” or “a deal”, or talk about someone who “doesn’t respect contract” – or even “stopping the presses”? There are some lines that get laughs – like the Dark Lady’s reminiscence of their relationship: “God, he was good. His plays weren’t bad, either”; but those rather undo the rambling talk about the spiritual quality of the plays and how they bring you nearer to God. It’s funny what American audiences go for.

Our brave troupe does its best to handle all this in sober English voices, and Wakeham keeps the thing moving along in its (mainly) simple, guys-in-a-bar setting. Nonetheless, the mimes that show us that printing and collating took place are tedious, and the show is pretty long anyway.

The stand-out performance is by Andrew Whitehead as Ben Jonson – wonderfully over-the-top, which must be the only way to do this text, in true Horrible Histories fashion. Zach Lee has a good go at the ageing thespian Burbage, but then he dies early on and Lee has to switch to being the unscrupulous printer William Jaggard (like almost all the cast, he must multi-task to keep the story rolling).

Other characters, even including Emilia Bassano Lanier (Carrie Quinlan) and Anne Hathaway Shakespeare (Helen Pearson) and her daughter (Jessica Ellis) in Stratford – talking in suitably Brummie accents – come over as rather bland.

But the last five minutes are good fun, with a fusillade of Shakespearian purple passages and quick costume-changes from everyone, running in and out – followed by a dance which (as the text points out), Will would have really liked.

More info and tickets here


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