Trying to shoe-horn Shakespearean speeches into a new narrative is a perilous task and one that should never be undertaken lightly. Those behind this new work have made a brave stab but in the end their understandable desire to get in all the favourite moments undermined the themes they initially set out to examine.
There are few, if any, characters in the Shakespeare canon who can truly to be said to be saintly. There are plenty of sinners – but even they can display traits of genuine humanity. The journey this production seeks to take us on is that of a man who is struggling with conflict within his marriage and turns to Shakespeare for spiritual assistance. There is much discussion of how saintly characters have flaws and how sinners are not all bad – but, in the end, this has little to do with the questions the central character is trying to resolve and plenty to do with an actor seeking great moments from the plays. There is nothing wrong with this but it does make for a slightly disjointed evening.
Tom Peters is an actor of considerable skill. He is able to move swiftly between the many characters and has generosity, charm and warmth in his stage presence. Occasionally he is rather too mannered in his performance – there is only so much posturing and hand-wringing that I can take in any one evening – but there is still some excellent verse-speaking.
The direction, for me, is a little lacklustre. Other than occasional use of the pulpit, there is little that marks out this production as being site-specific. I could see it being performed with very little alteration in any of the studio spaces available in Oxford. The Director has given her actor the space to explore the texts but there is a need for a little more discipline at certain points in the performance. Whilst Tom Peters is a good musician, I do question the use of quite so much music – the lyrics did not seem to me to add much to our understanding of the central themes or the journey being undertaken.
I have to say that it feels very much like a work in progress. It is a format that allows for speeches to move in and out of the running out, for the order to be changed and for the initial thoughts to be completely replaced by the time the form is finalized.
It is by no means a bad evening’s entertainment. There is warmth, humour, pathos and genuine emotion on display. It does not, to my mind, fulfil the brief they set themselves. As a performance that explores some well-known and not so well-known highways and byways of Shakespeare, it works. As an exploration of saints and sinners, it doesn’t.
For me, Shakespeare and a good performance are enough – and you get both here.