Oxford English professor Jonathan Bate isn’t a playwright, and his Being Shakespeare, now in a brief run at the BAM Harvey Theatre, isn’t a play, despite being billed as such. It’s hard to fault the producers for this mild subterfuge; nowadays, how could you draw large audiences to anything called a lecture? But that’s what this is, a staged lecture written by Prof. Bate, artfully directed and designed by Tom Cairns, and rhapsodically delivered by the noted Shakespearean and film actor Simon Callow.
Fittingly, Mr. Callow, also a respected writer, is at work on a multivolume biography of Charles Dickens, who drew New World crowds to his famous lectures. In Dickens’s day, cultural stars energized a thriving lecture circuit unknown today, providing the masses with much-sought-after entertainment. Being Shakespeare, a somewhat speculative recounting of the mysterious life of William Shakespeare draped on the famous “seven ages of man” speech from As You Like It and illustrated with apropos passages from many of Shakespeare’s works, does entertain.
The effective atmospherics arise in particular from Bruno Poet’s magnificent lighting, which combines with evocative shadow-projections to establish mini-settings for Mr. Callow’s tales of Will’s birth, childhood, adolescence, early and mature career in the theater, and death, as well as his quotations from various plays. The script elides some of the greater mysteries of Shakespeare’s shrouded biography, such as the lack of knowledge of what he did through much of his 20s. It acknowledges but then dispenses with the unceasing speculations about whether he really wrote the plays that bear his name, making a shallow but sensible case for authorship by the middle-class glovemaker’s son from Stratford-on-Avon through amusing and touching descriptions and dramatizations of young Will’s schooling in grammar and rhetoric, his youthful activities in the leather trade, his mourning the death of his only son from the plague, and so on.
This regular-fellow life, says Bate, forms the raw material from which Shakespeare conjured royal courts, enchanted forests, and foreign lands. But making the case for Shakespeare’s authorship isn’t the central purpose of this presentation. Rather it’s to raise the dim facts of the Bard’s life into sharper relief, to bring his world alive. Arriving in London to better his fortune and try and shake off the shame of his father’s growing debt troubles, young Will makes his way to the theater, where people arrive “on foot, or by boat, but if you could possibly afford it you’d go on horseback or in a carriage. Somebody had to look after the horses. Step forward, William Shakespeare. 500 years later he’s have valet-parked your car for you. Little by little, he finds himself drawn in…”
Callow draws us in similarly; he’s the best college professor you ever had, magnified by props, lighting, sound, and staging. The absence of a true story and characters makes the second act a bit of a letdown, as there’s no tension to be released or resolved after the break. But overall it’s quite well done. Callow’s exquisite skill makes his solo-performance of numerous brief scenes, pairing the stages of Shakespeare’s life with corresponding moments in the plays, a joy to watch. A play? Not really. A pleasure? Indeed.
Being Shakespeare runs through April 14 at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.