Callow and Bate Pursue Shakespeare

Billed as a play rather than a one man show, Being Shakespeare features actor Simon Callow on stage for almost two hours. But he is not alone. British scholar Jonathan Bate has written a “play” whose drama comes from engaging and explicating the works, history and facts of William Shakespeare.

Part-lecture, part-performance piece, part-personal paen (from Bate as well as Callow), Being Shakespeare is a multi-faceted exploration of identity. Shakespeare, the cultural titan, is treated as a phenomenon to get one’s head around. In the process, Callow and Bate reveal their own sensibilities as men of letters, readers of actions–as inspired, not passive inheritors of a theatrical and philosophical tradition.

Through recitation of Shakespeare’s speeches and sonnets–backed with evocative lighting by the deservedly named Bruno Poet whose subtle patterns create moods sufficient to illustrate the varying tones of the Tragedies, Comedies and Histories–Being Shakespeare uses the ingenuity of performance and theatricality to make a substantive tribute to all that Shakespeare has contributed to the English frame of mind.

In the course of Callow’s tergiversation (he phases in and out of roles as lecturer, various characters, himself), the show’s drama reveals a concern with a certain aspect of Englishness and national characteristics found within that culture’s greatest artist (details about Shakespeare’s schooling and family life inform the selections performed). Importing Bate’s play to the Brooklyn Academy of Music also makes a cross-cultural statement: Callow himself purposefully blurs private identity to make his patriotic sense of value and satisfaction, one.

Taking on a challenge titled Being Shakespeare isn’t devoid of hubris–a trait Callow has represented in many film roles starting with the Merchant-Ivory A Room with a View (1986) that most Americans will know. It suits Callow’s lightning-fast showing-off as Falstaff, Macbeth or one of the loquacious seducers of the Sonnets. Director Tom Cairns neatly monitors the ever-shifting perspectives. Yet through this always evident pride, Callow embodies something serious: the very real intellectual satisfaction that writer Bate means to convey for the standards of behaving and artistic creation that have been established through Shakespeare’s legacy (this comes out in a previously hidden excerpt from a late–though now timely–Shakespeare speech on mob tyranny). Being Shakespeare is a “play” of special interest for those who know and are fascinated by Shakespeare. Who would that not include?

Being Shakespeare at BAM’s Harvey Theater through April 14