It’s well known that Shakespeare left his wife Anne Hathaway (Why do we never call her Anne Shakespeare, which must surely have been what she called herself in those days?) only the second-best bed in his will. Two and a half centuries after his death there began a fashion for saying he didn’t write his plays and poetry himself, a fashion that has gone on ever since. This play from Worcester Rep is a sort of weird culmination of those two facts. It is not possible to comment on the play without revealing its central conceit: yes, you guessed it. Anne Hathaway wrote it all. Clearly, this is a play, a fiction, and not a serious attempt at yet another conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theorists try to come up with what they see as convincing evidence for their fantasies, and there is no attempt to do that here.
The piece is set on the day of Will’s funeral, after Anne has waved off the mourners, on a stage dominated by said bed.
Anne, played here by Liz Grand, is a feisty and forthright woman, and makes much of the energetic frolics that have taken place upon it.
Will, represented by a plaster bust of himself, is portrayed by his wife as a lubricious but dim yokel with a West country accent (Why? He’s from Warwickshire!). The thing proceeds as a sort of proto-feminist fairy tale in which, if she shags around (which she does) it shows her as confident and empowered; if he does (and he does), it shows him as weak and faintly despicable. She is the creative powerhouse (Hooray!), he gets all the adulation and glory in London (Boo!). It gets sillier: apparently, it was she who shagged the Earl of Southampton, dedicatee of the sonnets, to get him to be Will’s patron. It is she who is the famous Dark Lady of said sonnets. Which seems a bit weird since, according to this, she wrote the poem herself. To herself? And it is nowhere explained how such a dumbo as hubby could hold his own up that London with such as Ben Jonson and Kit Marlowe, without them smelling a rat.
Grand is no slouch as an actor, and enlivens the performance with a powerful and versatile demonstration of her talents, including frequent and well-executed familiar extracts from ‘her’ works. But it can’t in the end get around the weakness of the script. Feminism, if that’s what this is intended as, deserves better than second-best.
John Christopher Wood