Shakespeare’s influence is all around us – but it nearly wasn’t. This fun and moving new play tells the – mostly – true story of how many of his plays were preserved for posterity.
This Maddermarket performance of Lauren Gunderson’s award-winning play is a UK premiere, which seems fitting given the theatre’s strong connections with the Shakespeare canon.
It tells the story of how John Heminges and Henry Condell, former colleagues of Shakespeare, bought together the first reliable collection of his plays some seven years after his death. In doing so they faced many challenges, not least finding accurate scripts given at the time most were passed on orally or in a series of separate ‘sides’, containing only partial dialogue – ironically a device to help prevent copying.
With the Bard himself dead and many of his contemporaries also ageing, the race was on to permanently record the scripts and provide an alternative to cheap knock-off copies.
Gunderon’s script is incredibly warm-hearted, clever, and funny. While there are plenty of jokes for the Shakespeare aficionado the play has an emotional core that reaches out well beyond that; there is love, death, intrigue, and a comic drunk. In fact, it’s only missing disguised twins for a full house in Bard bingo.
It is brought to life by a skilled company. David White puts his booming actorly tones to full effect as declining thespian Richard Burbage, with Gill Tichborne and Jenny Belsey providing worldy-wise advice as the merry wives of Condell and Heminges.
Those two men are the heart of the play, with Jamie Willimott and James Thomson both delivering standout turns – with an especially emotionally rich performance from Thomson. Lola Matthews as Heminges’ daughter Alice has spot on comic timing, often as an extremely successful foil to David Newham’s deliciously funny appearances as a well-lubricated Ben Jonson.
Kevin Oelrichs brings a touch of pantomime villain to this festive production as conniving printer William Jaggard – helped by Amanda Greenway’s fun costume design – with Jose Tarouca as his much more sensitive son.
Paul Stimpson’s set makes the most of the theatre’s mock-Elizabethan styling, keeping to a basic set that homages the contemporary approach to productions, with just a few subtle touches to indicate the shifts from tavern to theatre to print room.
Director Tony Fullwood draws out some great performances from the cast, with some witty between scenes action and a gentle emphasis on comedy that still allows the play’s more sombre scenes to hit home.
This 400-year-old tale is a colourful, characterful, and captivating one; a thoroughly entertaining slice of history that changed our world for ever.
- The Book of Will continues at Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich until November 26 2022.