"Shakespeare’s lost years intriguingly imagined"
by Michael Gray for remotegoat on 30/03/18

Like our Saviour, Shakespeare has some frustrating gaps in his biography timeline. Those “lost years” have given rise to much fanciful speculation. Novelist Benet Brandreth has him risking his life as a secret agent in Venice. And now, on Bankside where he fetched up after those adventurous eight years, Victoria Baumgartner’s intriguing new play – originally in French – imagines young Will setting out from Stratford to follow his dreams.
Five actors bring these imagined events to life. They’re dressed very stylishly in black and white period costume. They wait in expectation at the start until the bard-to-be [he’s the one with a quill under his belt] confides that “the hardest thing is to begin”. And 90 minutes later he’s in London at last, at the start of his public career in the theatre.
Along the way we do re-visit some of those lost-years legends: poaching deer, joining the players, travelling to the North, teaching at the Grammar School, spending time in Italy, and writing passionate verses for the Earl of Southampton, who shares his love of Ovid. Possibly some kind of a code, this, since it precedes a “lascivious” pas de deux.
But the play covers much more ground than this – romps in the barn with a youthful Anne, the death of his son Hamnet, and most of the great plays from Titus to Tempest. Besides Southampton we meet Richard Burbage, who shares Will’s adventures, and his [fictional] sister Olivia, who, following a popular trope, masquerades as a boy to take the women’s parts.
Baumgartner’s production of her own piece is lively and inventive, with plenty of laughter along the way. Much of the action is physical: the Warwickshire deer “offering their wooden crowns to the setting sun”, an exciting Tempest. The “Burbage Brothers” casting from the audience for their Spanish Tragedy, and auditioning the awkward Will in a death scene worthy of Pyramus. Ovid’s hero appears again in an ingenious scene in the Latin classroom. Shakespeare’s own voice is cleverly included, together with in-jokes – the pie, Will as the Danish ghost – and running gags about poetry and, of course, Ovid. The cavernous space is sparingly but effectively used, especially for the voices in the playwright’s head.
The music is nothing if not eclectic – a sultry Summertime for Susannah’s begetting, Woodkid’s Run Boy Run for the flight from home, Moderat’s Reminder for a later journey.
Sam Veck gives us a natural, sympathetic Will, superb when he shares, as a simple storyteller, The Winter’s Tale. Katherine Moran is his Anne, and Ronnie Yorke his life-long collaborator Richard Burbage, star of the Globe. Beatrice Lawrence makes an interesting character of the unlikely Olivia, and Charlie Woodward is excellent as the sneering but seductive Southampton; with a new doublet he is also the dangerous Kit Marlowe, and in sepulchral darkness, the Gravedigger.
This is not a work of scholarship, or a true history of those mystery years. And some ideas are more plausible than others – Will being tempted from his teaching job at the behest of the Queen and the desperate Burbages ?
Nonetheless, it manages to make old tales fresh, and set us wondering whence came the words and the thoughts that would “change the course of history” as we share Will’s voyage “whose limit was your imagination”.

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