In Love With Shakespeare

By Philip Pearce

IN LOVE WITH SHAKESPEARE, Howard Burnham’s tribute to Will of Stratford on his 457th birthday, is a total delight. The actor doesn’t take on the persona of his subject, he offers a more or less chronological parade of the sages, the pundits, the pedants, the kooks, the “improvers” and the appreciators who spoke and wrote about this famous April 23 birthday boy.  

The performance starts with an invitation to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” via the gangster duet from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate and it’s all playful fun and informed insight from there to the closing credits.    

There’s a well-earned vote of thanks to Shakespearean colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, without whose dogged determination to collect and collate a messy mountain of scripts and scraps and production notes into a First Folio we wouldn’t have had much if any Shakespeare to read, perform or delight in.

The new show’s action covers generous tributes from devoted contemporaries like Ben Jonson and brickbats from disgruntled rivals like Robert Greene, renowned only for labeling Shakespeare a fly-by-night “Upstart crow” and a pretentious “Shake-scene.”  

In the century after the first folio Will’s scripts were “improved” by busybody managements and players. They fussed at the raw passion and bleak endings of the major tragedies, which they doctored to meet the highfalutin sensibilities of 18th century audiences. In Nahun Tate’s bowdlerized King Lear the storm-battered monarch survives, regains his kingdom, turns it over to Edgar’s bride Cordelia, who claps her hands and gushes, “Cordelia then shall be queen!”

Nineteenth-century audiences favored big scenic effects and a lot of heavy-breathing stage emotion. Reacting to a high powered performance of Antony and Cleopatra, a matronly patron remarked on the differences in queenly behavior between Egypt’s serpent of the Nile (played by Sarah Bernhardt, if I got it right) and Britain’s own dear Queen Victoria.   

Along the way, there are notes and commentary on Shakespeare jubilee and centenary celebrations, notably 18th century superstar David Garrick’s big weekend of theater, speeches, parades and banquets at Stratford upon Avon. Burnham is at his comic best in an almost endless recitation of banquet toasts to everyone and everything from Shakespeare’s poetic muse to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which he offers in a rising tide of drunkenness.   

This first and most ill-fated of Shakespeare Festivals was famous for being deluged by a rainstorm that caused the Avon to burst its banks and a steady stream of ticket-holders to unfurl their brollies and make an early departure. 

The joy of Burnham’s wide canvas of personalities and viewpoints lies in the way it allows him to open a theatrical costume trunk of genders, ages, attitudes and dialects. Close your eyes as he sings “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and you’ll swear you’re listening to William Bendix. He spotlights the truths and the pretense and he picks up the ironies and nonsense along the way. He even creates a believable insect voice for the cockroach Archy of Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitobel exchanging Shakespearean chitchat with a long-in-the-tooth parrot who claims to have been a contemporary of Will and Burbage, Ben and Christopher and the rest of the Elizabethan Southbank brotherhood. 

There’s a nice reprise of the 1960s Beyond the Fringe send-up of those endless and incomprehensible lists of supporting cast karistocrats (“What, Exeter!” “Speak worthy Sussex and Pontefract!”) that slow down any performance of the history plays.

The show closes with another well deserved tribute, this to American actor Sam Wanamaker (pictured), who, as a refugee of the McCarthy debacle, emigrated to London, where he worked tirelessly to build a new Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank but died just months before his dream was realized. The first words spoken from the stage of the new Globe came from Wanamaker’s daughter Zoe in the role of Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V, “O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention!”

In Love with Shakespeare is a treat. Catch it if you love Shakespeare—or if you want to learn to love him.