A one-man show featuring British actor Simon Callow reading the Chicago phonebook in his mellifluous tones might very well be worth the price of admission. Better still is to permit this talented performer to paint an affecting portrait of William Shakespeare, the playwright whose work continues to influence our language and theater to this day. Just such a play is currently onstage at the Broadway Playhouse, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Being Shakespeare — a somewhat misleading title in that Callow never plays the Bard directly — allows audiences new insights into how Shakespeare’s life informed his work and is a cunning piece of theater on its own.
“Like going to the best English lecture ever,” pronounced one theatergoer. Not surprising in that the contemporary play was penned by Jonathan Bate, a professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and all-around Shakespeare cheerleader. But don’t picture a stuffy lecture hall: imagine actor Callow spot-lit on a stark stage with a handful of props magically spinning fully realized scenes out of words. In Callow’s able hands — and at one point in the production Callow’s hands become animated beings with a life of their own — Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” (from As You Like It) becomes “A stage is all the world.”
The concept is simple and effective. Being Shakespeare is structured around the seven stages of a human life – from cradle to deathbed — as catalogued in As You Like It. The play weaves together Shakespeare’s own words as culled from his plays with commentary from a contemporary perspective. The juxtaposition of the two opens new insights into Shakespeare the man.
For example, in one instance Callow arranges a few straight-backed chairs to create a classroom — a small cap on one seat evokes a lad — and we make the connection between Shakespeare’s schooling and his work. We learn that at grammar school the emphasis was on actual grammar, Latin grammar in particular. The study of rhetoric was meant to turn middleclass boys like Shakespeare into argumentative lawyers. And soon we see where the language of Shakespeare’s plays took root.
Callow is an accomplished Shakespearean actor who most recently received acclaim as Sir Toby Belch in the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night, and when he pronounces words from Shakespeare’s plays we hear them in their full glory. A veteran of the large and small screen — you’ve probably seen his glinting eyes in Amadeus, Shakespeare in Love or Four Weddings and a Funeral — Callow is equally at home with contemporary language, some of which turns out to have Shakespearean roots: “At first, the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms,” wrote Shakespeare in As You Like It, coining the word “puking.”
The 75-minute play needs little more than Callow to keep it humming. Indeed, the infrequent additions of sound and light sometimes seem like intrusions, as when what are supposed to be tinkling bells sound too much like an audience member’s non-silenced cell phone going off at the wrong moment. But that is a minor distraction from the two men who make up this one-man show: Callow and Shakespeare himself.
Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago
April 18–29, 2012
Photos: André Penteado and Stephanie Berger