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FringeReview USA 2023

The Book of Will

The Hub Theatre

Genre: Dramedy, Theatre

Venue: Boston Center for the Arts


Low Down

In ‘The Book of Will’, William Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues come together to compile the Bard’s work into a folio to save his plays for posterity years after his death.


Every so often, there is a rash of think pieces that bring William Shakespeare into the 21st century to reassess the Bard’s place in current times. Perhaps they are critical of his work in response to #metoo, or alternatively making a case for it as early feminist theatre. Maybe its a comparison of modern day politicians with his vilest opportunists. In 2020, much was made of Shakespeare’s pandemic while we dealt with ours. He wrote King Lear, they said, surely you can figure out a sourdough starter. What is it about Shakespeare that make us insist on seeing our lives through his lens hundreds of years after his death? 

In ‘The Book of Will’, Shakespeare has only been dead for several years, but already his surviving friends realize that with the death of prominent actor Richard Burbage most of the bard’s words risk being lost to time. They are struck with their unique opportunity to ensure the work is preserved. In this based-on-truth story, friends and enemies band together to collect Shakespeare’s writings, and by supplementing it with memories of performers and the scribblings of fans, they produce the folio of Shakespeare’s complete works as we know them today. This love letter to the power of theatre is by Lauren Gunderson, the most widely produced living playwright in the United States (no prizes for guessing who is the overall most produced playwright is), and the script deftly invokes the spirit of the Bard without ever falling into pastiche or melodrama. We know how this story ends- after all, this play would not exist if the merry band of publishers was not successful. The stakes, however, are clear and real, and Gunderson’s facility for character makes us care deeply for them and their bumpy journey towards their goal, making a foregone conclusion feel much more uncertain.

The Hub Theatre Company’s version of this play makes magic with seemingly little in they way of set and props, but through Bryn Boice’s direction, a sparse stage becomes bustling London. A few tables and a charming set up of ropes and pillars (designed by Peyton Tavares) transforms into a world of working people; print-houses, street corners, theatres, and pubs, come alive and put us in the middle of the action. It does not take long at all to feel a genuine chemistry between the ensemble, and this perceived bond makes us feel that much more connected to their fates. Dev Luthra’s performance of Burbage is commanding, especially in his Best of the Bard moment wherein he switches characters on a dime. His inevitable loss is immediately felt, and despite only having been in this world for moments, we understand what is at stake as Shakespeare’s words die out with the men who first spoke them. From then on, each member of the cast gets their own moment to impress. As Shakespeare’s surviving friends Henry Condell and John Heminges, Cleveland Nicole and Brendan O’Neill lead the cast with good humor and sincerity. The scene they share at the top of Act II, in which a grieving John converses with Henry about why he comes to the theatre instead of church for comfort, was tremendously moving, and the audience was clearly affected. Lauren Elias serves up snappy common sense as John’s daughter Alice, and later as Shakespeare’s former muse brings an intriguing new dimension and playfulness to Sonnet 130. As John’s wife Rebecca, Laura Rocklyn brings a presence to the stage that would not feel out of place in the West End. Her Rebecca is the beating heart of this production, the glue that holds together Act I, the ballast that propels Act II. The ensemble is rounded out by the dependably hilarious John Blair, a steady presence in Jessica Golden, and the versatile character work of Jeremy Beazlie, Josh Telemann, and Robert Thorpe II, all of whom have a hand in seeing our new friends through to the last line. 

To watch ‘The Book of Will’ is a necessarily meta experience. Although the characters in ‘The Book of Will’ are fictional constructions, they are based on people who actually existed; people who against the odds of terrible 17th century record keeping, natural disasters, and war managed to save a life’s worth of genius. As we watch Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues race against time and memory to compile the folio, which results in his being performed and beloved for centuries after his death, we must as audience members consider our own part in this process. What is our responsibility to art? Are we all stewards of it once we have touched it and let us touch us? The Hub Theatre knows its part in this; they operate under a pay-what-you-want scheme, allowing anyone to see their work regardless of what they can afford, making this performance in particular feel pleasingly in sync with the spirit of the piece. 

Shakespeare is, for better or for worse, an ever-fixed mark in the literary world. Because of his pervasive presence, we must sometimes stand back and ask why. This play posits that in Shakespeare we continue to find ourselves. Despite the passage of time, we reach across and touch fingers with someone whose day-to-day life we barely recognize but whose soul carries the same weights as our own. We decode his words and translate them into a common humanity. Shakespeare takes the pain and confusion of life and bends them into submission, giving us closure where there would often be none. And then, as Gunderson poignantly surmises, he also gives us the most we can hope for in perfect ending: “We take a bow,” Henry tells John, “Because the story was told well enough, and it’s time for another.” Yes please, Hub Theatre Company.