By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Film Critic
Sometimes you just can’t catch a break. For example, consider the case of Mrs. William Shakespeare and the story laid out in Shakespeare’s Will. It’s a 2005 play from Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen receiving a local premiere at Quantum Theatre. The piece is a (mostly) one-woman intermissionless 90-minute exploration of the life of Anne Shakespeare née Hathaway.
Shakespeare’s Will runs through December 1. West Homestead United Methodist Church, 515 W. 8th Avenue. 412-362-1713. www.quantumtheatre.com
We open on the morning of Will’s burial and through a series of flashbacks Anne remembers her first meeting with the Bard, their “shotgun” wedding, his move to London (they lived apart for most of their marriage,) her raising of their three children and then his return home and death. The title comes from perhaps the only bit of trivia we know about Anne … in his will Bill left her his “second-best bed.”
Since I prefer to think about William Shakespeare as little as humanly possible, you can probably guess how much I think about his wife. Yet Shakespeare’s Will forced me to consider that in life, Anne was only ever Will’s wife … but in death, she’s still not her own person. This was brought home when Wikipedia told me “This article is about the wife of William Shakespeare. For the actress, see Anne Hathaway.” Poor Anne (The first one, I mean). Will she ever be seen for herself?
Probably not. While on the internet I ran across this quote from historian Katherine Scheil who describes Hathaway as a “wife-shaped void” modern writers use “as a canvas for expressing contemporary woman’s struggles – over independence, single motherhood, sexual freedom, unfaithful husbands, woman’s education and power-relations between husband and wife.” In other words, our interest in Anne (the original one) is either as the wife of a famous man or a blank slate we can doodle on.
Interestingly, Thiessen attempts both. Part of the story is the life of a celebrity suffix; Anne describes the young Shakespeare’s diffidence with language giving way to the flood of poetry which would consume him. She tells of the pact they make to live separate lives and the ensuing regret when his life turns out bigger than hers.
But mostly the Anne of Shakespeare’s Will is Woman with a capital “W” enduring the struggles Scheil lists above. Nothing about this Anne could be placed in the 1600s; it’s a character written from a contemporary viewpoint and her journey toward self-actualization could be called a lot of things, but “historical” isn’t one of them.
Thiessen has no desire to present the reality of Anne’s world (nor should he) and even less sticking to what little facts we know about her. He’s a playwright after all, not a documentarian, and rightly favors theatricality over reality. My only complaint is his attempt to create a dramatic arc with a fabricated event in Anne’s life leading directly to the infamous will. It doesn’t merely strain history, it strains credulity and sounds a bleating, false note at the climax of what has been a moderately enjoyable evening of understated writing.
But, really, it hardly matters since Sheila McKenna is playing Anne. I think the textbook definition of theatrical joy would be watching McKenna onstage for 90 minutes pouring her protean gifts into whatever she deems worthy. She gives Anne a depth of intelligence that is frightening, compelling and heartbreaking all at the same time. This is a character of near-limitless capabilities somehow trapped by internal and external strictures.
She is occasionally joined onstage by musician Dawn Posey, a violinist of deft skill providing a musical counterpoint to and contemplation of themes and dreams expressed by McKenna. And a silent Simon Nigam enters now and again as Anne’s son.
The whole thing is brought together handsomely by director Melanie Dreyer, a theater artist of no small intelligence herself. While there are some movement choices I’m not entirely sure I understood, Dreyer’s direction is pristine and utterly effortless … this event seems to just be happening in front of you.
As usual with Quantum, the technical aspect is without peer; Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s beguiling set showcases C. Todd Brown’s lights, Steve Shapiro’s sound, and Joe Seamans projections.
Anne Hathaway (the dead one) may lament that we’ll never get to know who she really was, but she should be comforted by the fact that since she’s now been played by Sheila McKenna she’s achieved immortality.