The first half of the play is long, and forms a schizophrenic mix of high scholarship, fact-dropping, slapstick, audience participation and time-travel. With socially challenged shool teacher Frank Charlton and his wannabe popstar sidekick Barry broadcasting their 'Shakespeare' show over the internet, it's all rather reminiscent of Wayne's World, but events take a perculiar turn when historical figures appear out of the ether and begin to state their case for authorship. The audience are invited to telephone the actors onstage with their questions about Shakespeare; God bless the brave souls who did - and the brave actors who had obviously done their homework, answering questions and even mentioning the 'Shakespeare was here (possibly)' plaque at The Crown pub. The downside was that some improvised sections seemed rather slow and made the first half too long.
Writer Mark Rylance, who also plays Frank Charlton, has done a bold thing in making his character so pathetic. He's funny, but it doesn't convince us that his quest to find the identity of Shakepeare is worthwhile. Barry (Sean Foley) provides the character to whom all must be explained. A useful device, he has little more perspective than Frank, being obsessed with crop circles and his failed pop career. Through this unlikely pair, Rylance explores why so many people are willing to accept William Shakespeare of Stratford, ill-educated and untravelled as he likely was, as the author of such sublime poetry: we all want to believe it's possible for an ordinary person to make it big. The Big Brother reference of a camera onstage filming the proceedings makes sense, unkindly, of this urge. I found the filming somewhat annoying, like the incessant rain noises and too much flashing light. But perhaps the set and sound had to be intricate to match the beautiful, authentic and detailed costumes of the time-travellers.
The second half is much better paced, with about-turns of mood and plot. We meet more characters including the immensely charismatic Mary Sydney (Juliet Rylance). Personal revelations appear thick and fast, and suddenly the plot is zipping along. Suddenly I feel that the theatre is a perfect forum for this debate - all theatre goers have a right if not a duty to address this question, to form an opinion, to learn some fascinating history. Whether or not this helps us understand the plays is not fully explored, but beautiful Shakespearean quotations are cited as evidence by each claimant in turn. Shakspere of Stratford, Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere and Mary Sydney state their cases; Christopher Marlowe and Philip Sidney are referred to without making personal appearances. You have to wonder how it will end, and how Rylance will avoid making a decision, since to come down firmly on the side of one of the claimants is clearly going to raise a bit of a fuss.
It's hard to review this play without giving away the ending, but you'll have to trust me that it's good, even if the audience have to be rather heavily nudged in the right direction. I cannot think of a better way to round things off; the only problem being, of course, that if we tie up the loose ends so neatly, we might remove the need to continue questioning them.