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Shakespeare: genius or fraud? That is the question


I Am Shakespeare, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, until October 20.

You only have to compare and contrast Edward ll with Richard ll to know that Christopher Marlowe was not William Shakespeare. So was he really Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford? Or Ben Jonson, or Uncle Tom Cobblers? Many an intellectual and historian has queried how a grammar-school educated glover’s son from the Midlands could have spun such sublime words with perception and profundity.

After all, he didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge after attending a top public school. Nor did Leonardo da Vinci or Ludwig von Beethoven. One was the illegitimate son of a peasant woman and the other battled with severe deafness. Genius is inexplicable. It can even pop up in a small town in the middle of “this earth, this realm, this England”. But, hey, here comes Sir Mark Rylance esteemed Shakespearean actor and the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. And evidently he’s querying that assumption. At some length, it must be said. I Am Shakespeare is a somewhat wordy work with rather too many lines but, admittedly, with some good ones among them. Had he been able to drop in on the first night at the Criterion, I suspect that Rylance might have been impressed by the production.

Under Anne-marie Greene’s direction, cast and crew gave it everything it was worth. And more. Jon Elves climbed right inside the head of English teacher Frank Charlton, a geekish obsessive strutting around his garage to project his doubts about Shakespeare’s true origins through a website chat show. We were at the interaction of the internet and the quill, and before long the garage was playing host to some of the contenders for the title of “the real Bard”. Bacon, yes. Oxford, yes – a thrustingly bombastic appearance by Pete Meredith. At one point he and Shakespeare had each other by the throat. Got a bit “ruff”, you might say. “Shakspar”, as he used to sign himself, was nicely downplayed by Alan Fenn with an accent slightly closer to Stratfordian than the Brummie blurted out by Harry Enfield as the playwright’s father in Upstart Crow. And Kelly Davidson seductively suggested as Lady Mary Sidney that she was really the dark lady who wrote the sonnets. Not to mention the plays, at a time when women weren’t allowed on stage. On and off-stage in the 21st century, there was plenty of inter-action between the cast and the audience – not least through digital technology. Towards the end we were invited to use our mobile phones to vote on whom we thought really wrote the works of “Shakspar”. Mine would have taken too long to switch back on. But, for what it’s worth, Will’s quill would have had my vote.

Peter McGarry's view: 'Local theatricality at its most potent.'

It’s frantic, it’s noisy, it’s too long, and you could add with some justification it’s quite bonkers. But there’s much to savour in writer Mark Rylance’s dippy excursion into the Shakespeare authorship question, served up here in true helter-skelter disharmony by an admirably demented Criterion team. If you hold strong views on the subject, be prepared to stand your ground because the play – and this production in particular – will challenge you in the extreme. In a stand-up audience vote, you’ll be more than brave to face down the rantings of an angry and outspoken young man determined to show that all is definitely not well that ends well. It’s all part of the immense fun, of course, generated by the zany setting of an internet chat-room show functioning from the garage of a nerdy obsessive named Frank. This part, originally played by Rylance himself, is here undertaken without that highly original quirkiness but with tremendous zest by Jon Elves. His rapid descent into quivering paranoia is gleefully realised when he is beset through paranormal interference by historical claimants to the authorship title. Among them, naturally, is the Stratford Will, cosy and comfortable and nicely self-assured in the hands of Alan Fenn. Might his calm and philosophical exterior in the face of the other oddballs – Bacon, de Vere, Lady Sidney - suggest the most obvious answer? Or not? Anne-marie Greene’s incisive direction of Mr Rylance’s enjoyable but unwieldy play keeps everything effectively a-pace. The wit and in-built skill of the writing are sometimes swamped by the writer’s over-enthusiastic tendency to convey too much information. A sure indication of where less can certainly be more. But it wisely doesn’t dictate. A hefty nudge, perhaps, towards Rylance’s idea that the authorship was a group project, but no hard sell here. Instead, with total irrationality, we’re confronted with a manic ‘I’m Spartacus’ finale. Don’t ask….

For sheer courage and downright good cheer, this production and everyone involved in it stand for local theatricality at its most potent.

Winner!