Edinburgh Fringe 2014
"April 1616 Shakespeare has returned to Stratford a rich famous and successful man but all’s not well. Why is he so unhappy? Why can’t he sleep? Why is his wife furious with him? Who is Will waiting for and why can’t Anne find the dog? The secrets, lies, resentments and passions of a marriage laid bare. A sleepless night in Stratford, the one hour traffic of our play. Bated Breath presents a new play by Philip Whitchurch with a bit of help from Shakespeare."
Shakespeare’s retired but he can’t get to sleep. He’s back home in Stratford, fretting about the imminent arrival of an auld colleague. Anne Shakespeare is up too. She’s been calling out, trying to get the dog inside this age and more. Through the chimes at midnight, and on into the wee small hours, husband and wife hold vigil over a litter of overthrown charms. They reflect on their lives spent together, the time apart, as well as the undiscovered country awaiting them beyond the horizon of some approaching dawn .
Philip Whitchurch’s script is a Bardian trainspotter’s delight. Textual references, biographic details, a Beckett of a cameo, combine to fill the hour’s traffic of the stage with 60 minutes of geekish distance run. Rendered in Old Pronunciation-inspired tones, it’s about the best bit of Tudor portraiture since Holbein said “finished” to George Brooke.
The script is also Whitchurch’s informed (and informative) solution to several puzzles in the final Avon swansong. For example, why did Mrs. Anne Shakespeare receive nothing except the second best bed from her husband Will’s will? The long goodbye, suggests Whitchurch, not a long list of grievances.
Whitchurch pictures a family man at ease, his night cap is beautified with feathers plucked from commercial success as actor/writer/businessman. Originally intended as a solo show, Whitchurch made the unforced error (to our advantage) of sharing an early draft with his own wife, actress Sally Edwards, who determined to get in on the act.
Without Edwards (as the laconic Anne) the proposed script might have had limited appeal, except as a sideshow museum of curiosities. With her it’s deserving of the best mainstages a latter day Henslowe can hire. Husband and wife may love one another dearly, but their competitive professional co-operation brings out the best in both. Anne’s anxieties about the strip mining of her marriage as a source for Shakespeare’s creative refinery are mirrored in an excitable onstage chemistry that would have Prospero reaching for his plastic safety specs.
Both are impeccably turned out. Whitchurch’s tailored nightshirt is just the right kind of opulent. His plain brown woollen long socks (part of me wonders if he had to be told cross-gartered yellow stockings was a bridge too far) are a splash of contrast. Edwards might have walked out the pages of Robert Graves’ Wife to Mr Milton. She’s plain without being dour, homely without being hempen or homespun. The material success of this couple is shown off without showing off.
Shows come to EdFringe to workshop. To find their feet, set the pace, pick a direction and start making waves. Shakespeare, His Wife and The Dog (dog sounds cur-tesy of Summerhall Supremo, Robert McDowell’s own pet pooch) is still a play of two halves.
The original conception was of a solo Shakespeare reflecting on his life on the eve of his death. Do you recall that Shakespeare died on his supposed birthday? If not you might agree that this needs better signposting, as the jungle explorer said of the lost city on which he’d just stubbed a toe. Cassius also died on his birthday. Amid all the textual trainspotting, the 4965 Rood Ashton Hall-ery and the 5043 Earl of Mount Edgcumbe-ing, is there no room a handshake with Messala?
This is a script which will belong to the ages. It’ll become a staple of A-level drama courses, art college entrance exams, auditions and festivals from Bard on the Beach to the Shakespearified Gdańsk Shipyard. Seeing it performed by it’s progenitor and his wife is a delight and privilege. Follow Edwards’ lead and get in on this act while you still can.