Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 31 August, 2007

Can drama schools please start teaching how to make an ending? I seldom see a devised show with fewer than three stabs at it, one after the other, and Mark Rylance and Matthew Warchus's venture is no exception; it also has at least two Act One finales. Mind you, with an engaged audience the final final ending here can be exhilarating: look at that title and think Spartacus.

The preceding two and a half hours (cut down from three during a hastily extended preview run, and still 10-15 minutes flabby) also fall prey to the twin pitfalls of the devising process and unwieldy subject matter. For Rylance has chosen to dramatise "the authorship question" surrounding the works attributed to William Shakespeare. He deploys some agreeably wacky tactics, casting himself as an obsessive running a tenth-rate Internet webcast on the issue from his garage and then conjuring up (thanks to a lightning storm and a malfunctioning wi-fi link) several of the main candidates to tussle it out. But as Shakspar [sic] of Stratford, Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford and the Countess of Pembroke debate with Rylance's Frank, his sidekick Barry and a gratuitous police sergeant, they cannot help but periodically descend into lecture. John Michell's excellent tour d'horizon book Who Wrote Shakespeare? seems to have been used as a source for brief synopses of the various theories, by no means all of which are represented onstage.

Rylance is a talented comic actor, but Warchus needs to subject him to more of the discipline that so paid off in their revival of Boeing-Boeing. It is also an unalloyed delight to see Sean Foley of The Right Size back on target as Barry after his misfire directing the revue Pinter's People. Roddy Maude-Roxby is shaky on lines but strong on doublet-and-hose suavity as Bacon, Colin Hurley nicely no-nonsense as Shakspar and Rylance's daughter Juliet persuasive as Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. The unsurprising conclusion is that we each of us create the Shakespeare we need to inform our own lives. It's also a bit rich to include a disparaging reference to "jolly dances at the end of Macbeth" in a show created by the man whose policy when running Shakespeare's Globe was precisely that. Following its Chichester run the show tours through to mid-October.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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