by Vern Thiessen
Gateway Theatre, Richmond
Anne Hathaway was Mrs. William Shakespeare, the woman who stayed home in Stratford to raise their three children while the man went off to London to become an actor and the world’s greatest playwright. For her troubles—and this is about all we really know of her—she was left, in the humiliating phrase from Shakespeare’s will, only his “second-best bed.”
In Shakespeare’s Will Edmonton playwright Vern Thiessen attempts to unearth the person behind the wife. What must life have been like for Anne? We meet her, in this solo show, played by Jan Alexandra Smith in a fine performance, just after she’s come home from burying Bill, as she calls him. She doesn’t yet know what’s in the will and won’t read it until the end of the play.
Giving voice to the neglected woman behind the great man is certainly a worthy project. But truth be told, hers is a story—at least in this version—without much incident. And the telling feels long, forsooth. At an hour and forty minutes (plus intermission) we might expect some significant revelations.
We do learn the circumstances of son Hamnet’s death, thought to have traumatized Shakespeare and contributed to some of his most potent writing. We also hear, ironically, that Bill was “a man of few words,” both in his courtship and the brief notes he sends Anne from London. And she suspects he has a male lover. But insights into the Bard are superficial and scarce.
Anne’s own story? Eight years older than Bill, she was more aggressive when they met, her father opposed the match, she reluctantly let Bill go to London and rarely saw him afterwards. She raised the kids alone, though he sent them money and bought them a nice house. She resents his sister Joan and has a lusty sexual appetite which she indulges with “many men.” But what really makes her tick remains a mystery.
Smith, who looks substantially younger than Anne’s sixty, has a strong, attractive physical presence and animates her character with roiling gusts of laughter. We glimpse her range as an actor when Anne comically imitates her angry father, the only other character evoked in more than one dimension, when she describes the terrifying plague and its threat to the family, and when she finally reads the will.
The production, imported from Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, puts her on a huge, beautiful set with massive cross-beams and a roof of Shakespearean parchment manuscript. No half-timbered Tudor, Guido Tondino’s design looks more like some contemporary Japanese architectural spread you might find in Southlands.
Dave Clarke’s omnipresent soundtrack and Del Surjik’s moody lighting are continually busy, as though director Geoffrey Brumlik feels the need to fill the space where a more substantial story should be.