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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Review: Still Bittersweet - Shakespeare's Will

Seana McKenna as Anne Hathaway in
Shakespeare's Will. Photo by Andrew Eccles. 2007

By Vern Thiessen
Directed by Miles Potter
Featuring Seana McKenna

The Story:  Coming home from Shakespeare’s funeral, his wife, Anne Hathaway, cannot yet bring herself to open his last will and testament. Instead, she allows herself to be swept away on a tide of memories of their life together… and their life apart.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival premiered Shakespeare’s Will in 2007, and since then the husband and wife team of director Miles Potter and actor Seana McKenna have taken it to the Globe Theatre in Regina, where Peter Hartwell redesigned the formerly square, raised set into the rounded, octagonal set they are using today. Spare, wooden, and decorated with only a simple stool and a lantern hanging from one of two striped posts, it is reminiscent of a ship’s wheel or deck, which is most appropriate given the language of the play.

Very little is known about the historical Anne Hathaway, but in playwright Vern Thiessen’s imagination Anne is very much tied to the sea – her father was a sailor and it was at the seashore where they found refuge when a plague seized their town and carried of her mother. Anne carries the sea with her throughout her life, its alliterative language colouring everything she says and does, its tides becoming a metaphor for the play, for her life with “Bill”.

Drifting from the present – were Bill’s sister Judith is expected and a will waits to be read – back through time to her life while Bill was alive, each person in Anne’s memory - and Anne herself - is given voice by actor Seana McKenna. The present is lit coldly, a dreary rainy day reflected on the floor of their home, the sound of distant thunder interrupting Anne’s thoughts. The past is bright and warm with sepia tones – an altogether happier place, for the most part, where music (composed by Marc Desormeaux) gently underscores each memory.  

Anne’s memories are of a Shakespeare who is inarticulate when flirting, a proud but absent father, a man passionate about writing and theatre, and a man who is ultimately as spiteful as his sister. Anne is a woman who likes the company of men, who doesn’t understand her husband’s passion, and who, despite their private vow to live separate lives and to hold dear to the things they love, misses her husband’s presence. She is also a woman – as demonstrated by Ms. McKenna – who knows her own strength, and will prevail whatever the unread will reveals.

As a performer, Ms. McKenna is a dream to watch in this role. With a simple change of vocal tone she immediately illustrates the essence of each personality – Judith’s maliciousness or her father’s laughable disgust (“Shakespeare?!?”). Any mother in the audience will recognize Anne’s panic as Ms. McKenna brings a sleep-deprived first-time mother to life, and many wives may relate to Anne’s own unease in her home life – the tale of a marriage with an absentee spouse is no rarer today than it was 400 years ago.  Ms. McKenna brings out of this imagined Anne her humour, her sensuality, and her pain. As the play nears an end, the fateful will is read, and although it reveals a husband more bitter than she would ever have imagined, Ms. McKenna’s final pose – as a ship’s figurehead – shows that Anne will be as ‘safe as sailing’; when the wind is up, she will move on.

It is a rare and wonderful thing to be able to see a play one has loved a second time, four years after seeing it for the first time, and see it improved. Not just a different production of the same play, but the same play, in the same theatre, with the same director, and the same actress bringing it to life. One might be tempted to think, “oh, how boring!” but this kind of statement would only demonstrate one’s ignorance. Because in the past four years, this same play has been refined by the same director, creative team and actress to within an inch of perfection, and one would be a fool of the first order to miss this production of Shakespeare’s Will.  It continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 2, 2011.

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