Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Confusingly using a description of Lord Byron as its sub-title, Shakespeare’s Mothers is essentially a Shakespearean compilation show for three actors – Stratford Will himself narrates and together with two red haired, corseted ladies delivers a well spoken, if one-paced canter through some purple passages. Will satisfy Shakespeare fans.
William Shakespeare is being interviewed by the arch cultured lady presenter of a TV programme Arts Night. Is it true that his depiction of strong female roles is responsible today for "an increased involvement" of women "in violent crimes and terrorist attacks?" It’s a lightly humorous intro, and mildly taken aback, Will defends himself with a witty observation that his young male actors would rather play male roles with lots of fighting, so when he had to write female roles he made them powerful women. To illustrate his case he proceeds to call one strong Shakespearean woman after another to the bare stage.
Shakespeare’s Mothers is, as the title suggests, one of those shows which basically uses a quickly abandoned device to string together a selection of bits of Shakespeare more or less on a common theme, linked by some more contemporary banter in this case spoken by the bard himself. Stratford Will, as played by Alexander Jonas, quickly establishes an easy rapport with the audience. Jonas makes for a charming pacy narrator, slightly plum-voiced, and in his proneness to steering well away from any hint of a dark force in his delivery he has something of the sweet harmlessness of a Jeremy Irons or a Richard Madeley about him.
But the plays are the thing, and as one scene follows on from another, the format inevitably demands that he and his two leading ladies are portray a dozen or more characters each. If they don’t fully succeed in this it is probably because they don’t really try to distinguish between their various roles through their acting. The temptation in multi-character shows is to abandon any attempt at real acting and dive for the cover of caricature, but all three actors avoid this potential trapdoor and fall back instead on simple clear delivery of Shakespeare’s lines trusting in faithfulness to his poetic genius as the main instrument in their acting armoury. Instead it is left to a few token tiaras, shawls, fans and other accessories to denote any change of person.
First up is Lady M, and the younger of the two women, the gorgeously long ruddy auburn haired Cat Martin looks very striking in corset and long dress, with burning eyes and an enigmatic smile playing on her lips. Without the proper context, and hampered a little by the rushed pace at which the whole play has been directed, she almost carries it off.
Kath Perry, who also wrote/compiled the play, is up next and quickly demonstrates her excellent verse-speaking, particularly in the scene where Richard III gets a cursing from his own mother. Similarly attired in a long dress and bosom-lifting corset, her light ginger pixie haircut seemed rather out of place.
But for all the skill this trio show in verse-speaking, after a while the unrelentingly rushed pace, the jumping from one scene to the next and the oscillation between period poetic purple passages and more modern off-the-cuff one liners all begins to tire. One’s ear is never allowed to become fully accustomed either to Shakespeare’s own verse or the witty banter Perry puts into his mouth. And the supposed theme is abandoned altogether during a longish digression into King Lear – a famously mother-free play – justified only by applying to Goneril and Regan the subtitle ‘Mad Bad and Dangerous to Know’ which anachronistically derives from a description of Lord Byron and is referred to at least four times during the show.
By the time Shakespeare uttered "How nice to see Cymbeline’s gentle queen… NOT!" the eyes of a few of the audience were already glazed over. We all perked up again when Mr Jonas demonstrated he really can act as Hamlet, and with the return visit of Lady M there was, at last, a dramatic lighting change – the stage plunged into red – but unfortunately an opportunity to slow the pace to a highly dramatic creep was missed and the director denied Miss Martin her chance to really show just how good an actress she might be.
The end when it came was rather abrupt, a quick return to the TV studio, a plug for the web site and then it was over. The applause was warm and most will come away from this with some satisfaction at having heard several chunks of Shakespeare well spoken, and a vague sense that Shakespeare wrote some mean roles for women.