Friday, January 18, 2013

Shakespeare's Avon lady

As most Hub Review readers know, every summer I make a pilgrimage to the Stratford Festival to see Shakespeare the way it should be done; and I always spend at least part of that sojourn worshipping at the altar of Seana McKenna (at left), one of Stratford's several leading ladies, whom I've applauded in roles as varied as Medea and Richard III (yes).  Indeed, every year, when my happy little band of bardolaters gathers to look over the Festival's offerings, one of the first things we wonder is, "What is Seana doing?"

And now you can worship Seana too, without having to make the trek to Ontario, as she has brought her one-woman show, Shakespeare's Will, to Merrimack Rep for the month of January.

Although right off the top: the play itself, by Vern Thiessen, is, well, no great shakes - if you will (har de har!).  It's an attempt to flesh out, in trendy millennial political trappings, the role that the mysterious Anne Shakespeare, née Hathaway, played (or didn't play) in the life of the Bard.

To be honest, the marital destiny of Miss Hathaway is a rather fertile topic, but Thiessen doesn't seem too interested in exploring it honestly.  Indeed, he plays fast and loose with almost every fact he references.  Anne, of course, was the older woman (by eight, or maybe nine, years) who wed the 18-year-old Shakespeare while already pregnant.  And she's the even-older woman who, some 34 years later, was faced on her husband's death with a will that bequeathed her only his "second-best bed."


Beyond that, we don't know much about Anne, although of course her absence therefore haunts Shakespeare's biography.  Was her shrewishness the inspiration for Kate's in his notorious Taming?  Was her sexuality the source of the paranoia that bred the marital jealousies of Othello, Winter's Tale and Cymbeline?  Did some oversight of hers precipitate the death of the couple's son Hamnet (as Thiessen imagines here) - thus impacting the structure and tone of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy?

Yes, there's a lot there to hang a drama on - but honestly, I don't want to paint Anne as some villainess lurking in every dark corner of the canon; as I said earlier, we just don't know that much about her.  

But that same ignorance leads me to instinctively doubt Vern Thiessen's vision of her as a bohemian advocate of open marriage who simply got the shaft from Shakespeare.  This also seems - well, highly unlikely.

What seems far more likely, I'm afraid, is that Anne in the end fell outside William's emotional orbit because she fell outside his artistic and intellectual orbits as well (as would most of us!).  Indeed, she would also probably fall outside the sympathies of those modern audience members who would like to identify with her as an oppressed heroine.  For we have no records indicating that Anne could even read, much less appreciate the output of the greatest literary genius of the West.  Indeed, the real mystery regarding Anne Hathaway may be the unknown reason why William Shakespeare never abandoned her entirely; why after escaping to London, performing for royalty and amounting a considerable fortune, he returned to her upon his retirement and lived out his last days with her - and why he did, apparently, provide for her till her death (despite Mr. Thiessen's implications, Anne lived out her days in comfort in her home in Stratford).

A possible sketch of the mysterious Anne?
But then to be honest, there is something deeply conservative about Shakespeare that always troubles the modern romantic; we find it hard to believe that the same soul that could pen the sonnets could also behave at key junctures like your average insurance salesman. I wish I had an answer to that conundrum, but I don't - so I wish Vern Thiessen had attempted one; that question has always struck me as the most intriguing about Shakespeare's home life.  But instead we only get a rather rambling (and inaccurate) journal of Anne's years alone, and the intimation that Shakespeare was an inscrutable jerk.  Oh well! I admit Thiessen does know how to keep an effective rhythm going, and he manages a few moments of intriguingly rough poetry - he may have a voice; but here he simply doesn't have a theme.

Luckily, however, he has McKeanna, whose years of playing Shakespearean heroines pay off spectacularly in this bravura turn as the Bard's heroine at home. McKeanna's specialty has always been a subtle intelligence, and here, under the direction of husband Miles Potter (a major director in his own right), she convinces us that Anne could have shared her rueful wit and insightful modern fire.  I have my issues with this text, but frankly I'd gladly pay to hear Ms. McKenna read the phone book (as the saying goes); and if you venture up to Lowell to hear Shakespeare's Will, I think you'll understand why.

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