My second day at Stratford was devoted to Shakespeare, although not “classic” versions of plays.
Simon Callow’s one-man reading of the Sonnets, There Reigns Love, is a short run closing on August 3. Rarely do we hear this poetry performed as a connected work, yet here we can wallow in both the text and in the thrill of watching a master actor at work.
Peter Hinton’s version of The Taming of the Shrew attempts to blunt some of this difficult play’s misogyny. Hinton is moderately successful, but the sweet context he wraps around the plot cannot hide the bitter sexual politics at its core. (This review will appear in part 3.)
There Reigns Love takes us into the personal life of William Shakespeare in a way we cannot see from his plays. The plays are about other people, and though they show us W.S. as a keen observer and contriver of character, not to mention a writer of really great speeches for actors, the playwright himself is absent. This performance of the sonnets is based on a re-ordering of the poems by John Padel who grouped them to provide links in a continuing story. Some will call this story fanciful, an appropriation of the Bard’s life to suit a contemporary view of history, but the scheme works dramatically.
This outline is framed into four scenes. In the first, Shakespeare writes 17 sonnets on commission for the 17th birthday of William Herbert, heir to the Earl of Pembroke who may die before his son comes of age. The poems are all about what a great idea getting married would be, and they’re rather impersonal.
Shakespeare was very taken by the young man, and it is thought that Herbert is the “W.H.” of the dedication to the complete sonnets many years later. In the second group, another commissioned set (for the 18th birthday), Shakespeare’s verse is much more intimate. Running off and starting a family is not the primary theme.
Herbert stayed single and in time came to London where Shakespeare introduced him to his own mistress. She is the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets. This scheme worked too well, and Shakespeare loses both of them. This brings us to the fourth group of poems about the decline of life and love, and finding oneself alone.
Callow introduces the scenes with a rather excessive overview of the premise that might better have been trusted to program notes so that he could spend more time in character, but that’s a quibble. The real treat is to hear the sonnets, some familiar, many not, strung together as connected text, flowing into each other as one thought, and delivered as one would the verse of the plays without slavish adherence to metre and structure.
Whether this arrangement of the sonnets and the backstory are merely a conceit, or a genuine explanation for the poems and Shakespeare’s life, we will never know. All the same, There Reigns Love is a moving performance, a master class in how to present lesser-known material in a thrilling way that demands you hear the words in a new context.
There’s only a bit more than a week left in this short run as I write this. See it if you can.