Will the real William Shakespeare come forward? Only in our dreams. . .
The mystery of Shakespeare’s life and career is compelling. How do we reconcile our image of the absentee husband and father from Stratford with the prodigious output of the London-based poet and player?
Susanna and Will is an elegant new work by playwright Diana Howie, produced in April by Country Playhouse Black Box Productions in Houston. The play imagines the reunion of Susanna Shakespeare and her father, raising questions about the Bard that have endured for centuries. With theatrical self-awareness, director Bonnie Hewett transforms this intriguing encounter into artful, soul-searching vignettes.
In the opening scene, Susanna is alone inside Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, where both of her parents are buried. It is 1623. She gazes lovingly at the pages of the First Folio, the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Reading aloud from Ben Jonson’s famous dedication, she unwittingly conjures up the spirit of her dead father. Presto – father and daughter are reunited.
Given that Shakespeare’s sole bequest to his wife Ann Hathaway was his second-best bed, exactly what kind of person was she? The play offers hints and a few answers. Susanna informs Will that she harbors a grudge toward her mother, calling her a “hateful hypocrite.” According to Susanna, Ann’s piety was for show – she was guilty of secretly playing cards, an “idle” pursuit frowned upon by the Church.
What was the nature of Ann and Will’s marriage? How often did Shakespeare return to Stratford to see Ann and their children – Susanna and twins Judith and Hamnet? What kind of relationship did Will have with Susanna, his eldest, principal heir, and presumed favorite?
Howie’s fictional documentary will please fans of the Bard, as well as newcomers. It deftly humanizes the inventor of manuscripts now considered as holy as the Bible. How did the grammar-school educated son of a glover become such a successful, court-sponsored poet and shareholder in London? How did he survive the untimely death of his only son, plague outbreaks that shuttered playhouses, and the growing Puritan unrest during his later years?
Throughout the two-act drama, Shakespeare’s eldest is imagined as a highly literate actress in her own right. When I watched the play on April 17, Maria O. Sirgo depicted Ann as fiercely independent and competent enough to fight a slanderous charge of adultery in court and win. John Kaiser’s Will came across as a warm soul — as undebauched and cool-headed as long-dead witnesses reportedly attested.
Through Bonnie Hewett’s clever direction, the two-person cast skillfully transforms the Holy Trinity Church into a stage. Susanna positions herself behind the lectern and satirizes the role of Stratford preacher for her father, to hilarious effect. Wittily and engagingly, Susanna and Will parody the manners and lives of clergy, kings, and others.
Susanna and Will takes us on a satisfying journey of discovery. Stubbornly, Susanna challenges Will to answer questions that have burned within her. We glean plausible (albeit fictional) insight into age-old questions about Shakespeare’s career choice and eventual prosperity; whether he composed any of his “sugared sonnets” for Ann herself; how young Hamnet died and how his death affected his parents; whether Shakespeare attended the funeral; where Shakespeare went during outbreaks of the plague; and why he never moved his family to London.
In Act Two, Hewett’s direction is especially astute. Nearly 20 years have passed since Susanna first conjured Will. It is 1642, and the English Parliament is at war with King Charles I. Susanna is old and gray, stiff and forgetful. She scurries about the Church, frantically searching for a place to hide her prized Second Folio edition of her father’s plays. She fears the valuable book will be confiscated by Queen Henrietta’s men.
For Will, who is conjured again in Act Two as Susanna quotes the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, the visit to Earth is historically enlightening. Father and daughter entertain one another with diatribe and raucous impersonations. We watch their antics in the context of England’s civil war and declining prosperity. Amid their reenactment of King Charles’ and Queen Henrietta’s reign, they also revisit lines and snippets from the plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry VI.
Howie’s brilliantly written story sparkles under Hewett’s skillful direction. Fans of Shakespeare will find this new work rich and fascinating.
Performances of Susanna and Will ran from April 4 to 19 at the Country Playhouse in Houston.