- Courtesy of Wayne Fawbush
- Margo Whitcomb in Shakespeare's Will
Last Thursday night's preview audience at Lost Nation Theater laughed as Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, described the lovers she'd had while her husband was in London making his name as a playwright. Vern Thiessen's play Shakespeare's Will takes a few historical facts, ignores others, and invents enough story to fill a one-woman show about Shakespeare's spouse.
Margo Whitcomb portrays Hathaway as a lusty provincial woman who's often apart from her husband as she raises their children in Stratford. Whitcomb uses a range of voices and fine theatrical presence to portray the people Hathaway speaks to or recollects. She builds the character physically, slouching her shoulders and walking with a rough gait to show Hathaway's farm girl upbringing. But when she discusses her children, her hands move with lovely, slow elegance.
The play, first produced in 2005, mixes comedy with attempts at profundity. The hard truth is that Shakespeare can't be explained through his association with Hathaway, though hoping for an insight here is tantalizing. Since interest in Hathaway stems solely from her potential influence on Shakespeare, Thiessen struggles to hint that she had one, but all he can give his character are some knowing looks.
The tone of the production is overwrought. Thiessen has written superficial observations for Hathaway and poured a few sticky metaphors over them, such as a yearning for the sea. To give the show weight, Whitcomb and director Eric Love enlarge a lot of moments with dramatic pauses and an overactive soundtrack.
When little is known of an artist, a tide of curiosity floods in, but all it carries is speculation. The historical record has little to tell us about Shakespeare; his plays and poetry, on the other hand, contain worlds. He left us acutely drawn characters, coined words and phrases that permeate English, and he offered sharp insights into love, world affairs and politics. But he left few hints of the man he was, or of how he possessed the creative freedom to invent so much.
Church records verify Shakespeare's marriage to Hathaway in 1582, when he was 18 and she was 26. Six months later, their daughter Susanna was born. Twins, Judith and Hamnet, followed. Hamnet died at age 11, possibly from the plague. Shakespeare died in 1616, at 52, and Hathaway died seven years later, in her mid-sixties. That's nearly all we know about her, so Thiessen is free to invent her; he has Hamnet die by drowning and uses the contents of Shakespeare's will to fashion an emotional denouement that departs from the documents and distorts the era.
Still, the impulse to crack a window on Shakespeare as a person is so powerful that this fan fiction will interest audiences who want to consider Hathaway as an overlooked part of literary history. The story isn't going to be a woman-behind-the-man revelation, because Hathaway and Shakespeare spent most of their time apart. To Thiessen, this means that the two had a revolutionary marriage in which both enjoyed jaunty sexual freedom and Hathaway was a vanguard feminist.
Thiessen is torn between stirring up sympathy for Hathaway by painting Shakespeare as a cad who abandons her, and emphasizing the only thing that would make her important: an intimate understanding of her husband and an influence on his work. Seesawing between showing us a pitiable woman on her own and suggesting that she alone knew her husband best makes the play a muddle.
Shakespeare's will is one of the few documents historians have to characterize his life, and much attention has been directed to the grumpy overtone in leaving Hathaway his "second best bed." Along with the shotgun wedding and time away from Stratford, the bequest suggests an unhappy marriage.
But the "second best" bed might be the marriage bed if the "best" were for guests. It could have been a sentimental conveyance, not an insult, but no matter — the degree of affection between Shakespeare and Hathaway won't be objectively resolved. Your own opinion of Shakespeare shapes what you want to be true.
As Thiessen dramatizes it, the will is emotionally crushing to Hathaway, and Shakespeare's sister gets the house, leaving her bereft. The will actually gives his property to Susanna and by extension her husband, the logical disposition at a time when women didn't manage money.
Though the play tells it differently, Hathaway continued to live in the house after Susanna and her husband moved in. The monologue makes sister Joan a cruel sort who comes to the house the night of the burial to gloat about her claim. And, because Thiessen wants to supercharge things, Joan implies that Shakespeare blamed Hathaway for the death of Hamnet. Historical basis for this notion? Zero.
The production's scenic design, by Lost Nation founding artistic director Kim Allen Bent, is beautifully austere. Three rough-hewn wooden beams hang above a set anchored by a writing desk, a trunk and a table. On a shelf backlit by a white scrim sit the few daily implements of Hathaway's life.
Costume designer Jan Bodendorf outfits Hathaway in a suite of period clothes, from cloak to dresses to drawers. Along with Bent's set, the costumes give Hathaway a reality deeper than the script's platitudes.
Charlotte Seelig's lighting design and Love's sound design echo every emotional nuance in the show. Lights roar red when Hathaway describes the fires lit to consume those dead from the plague, and the mix of sound effects and anachronistic music amplifies every significant word in the script. The multimedia is overkill for the shallow material, but the precise coordination of cues and dialogue is stupendous.
Shakespeare's Will comes from the author's imagination, not biographical fact. Thiessen's conjectures are questionable efforts to modernize a 16th-century woman, shedding more light on the author's contemporary point of view than on the subject. This is a Hathaway that today's audience might recognize — bawdy recollections and all — but she's an invention, not a window into Shakespeare.