WILL + ANNE: the Shakespearean tragedy he forgot to write

Will + Anne Manchester Shakespeare Company

Performance: 26th April

Cast: Aiden J.Harvey and Lynn Touil

Writer: John Topliff

Dir: Gina Frost

The play’s the thing….and context is everything. That false-friend elitism is so often tied up with people’s love or even feigned love of Shakespeare’s work. Yet it is simply the context of the age which makes the experience of his plays truly rich.

John Topliff and Gina Frost from the Manchester Shakespeare Company have worked hard over the first quarter of 2016 to perfect Will & Anne, even acquiring professional research from Dr. Sarah Lowe. Overall, it’s a double act in every sense. Formally, though – it’s a one act play led by Aiden J.Harvey and Lynn Touil. The pressure was on all five to carry the weight of expectation arising from reimagining history.

One of the keys to the performance is actually the programme guide itself, with all the outer spheres of Will and Anne’s lives shaping their collective memories and soliloquies. The sometimes tempestuous relationship recanted between Will and Anne do work alone without having this context. Indeed, there’s a quiet romance to watching a couple remember why their two souls bonded in the first place, and sometimes, you don’t have to know why the course of true love never did run smooth, it just does – but we want to know how. Ultimately, the challenge is offering that same enjoyable depth to the audiences who won’t have this context when you have to include the Burbages, Bartholomew and Caterina Hathaway, William’s brothers, Dr John Hall, Ben Jonson, Henslowe, Marlowe, Thomas Quiney and the rest for how complex Will and Anne’s world really was.

It’s a stark work overall, covering years from the eighties to now in one of the most under-reported and perhaps most dramatic of all the love affairs from Shakespeare. Will and Anne are given their modern-day equivalents: he is a renowned screenwriter whose star is fading fast, while Anne is the estranged wife who’s gone meteoric, under her nom de plume ‘Agnes Hathaway’ as a children’s writer. We meet them in her Beetham Tower penthouse for a reconciliation before a publicist-approved appearance at the Children’s Book Awards. It is in getting ready for this awards show so begins the Memento-esque trail of haunting.

Touil as Anne Hathaway is well-cast. Her take is unnervingly honest as the long-suffering estranged wife. She portrays some beautifully feminist moments about the personal turmoil of family and domestic life, expressed through a mother’s words. The well-spoken mid-Cheshire accent was definitely an interesting choice for this, but didn’t distract. There were some excellent physical moments throughout, notably towards the end of the act from Touil, channelling a bucolic, pregnant, 26 year old Anne Hathaway, also showing a real strength of female direction.

Harvey’s unmistakeable take on Shakespeare reminded us Will was both an actor and writer, absorbing the audience’s adoration of the Bard’s legendary status, a little like Father Christmas might if he was real: the traditional player’s club masculinity is eagerly represented. It’s script and actor here earmarking tragedy with humour, bawd, travelling tales and drinking tales. It does help create the play’s believability – and the devastating contrast in the unravelling tragedy of it all.

Most prominently, Anne is a force in Will & Anne in her own right: not (just!) the silent cougar married out of wedlock. By making her a literary success, we have a theory and reference to Anne which is never given the time of day it deserves – that Anne was another ‘working class literate’ in the 1500s like her younger betrothed, who was just as acutely aware of comedy and tragedy. The evidence we have of Shakespeare most clearly mentioning it himself is largely believed to be in the last three lines of Sonnet 145. Anne’s hilariously cool and very wifely wit is exactly that which ‘saved his life’ – perhaps saving it after the death of Hamnet, we could wonder – also the crux.

Context is everything. There’s real joy in MSC’s way of having Shakespeare’s universality appealed to by placing him in Manchester, making him mainstream once again. Perhaps clearer signposts for each ‘memento’ would enliven those 70-80 minutes; stronger costume additions for Anne in the performance I’d seen would help with the differentiation. Our Will gets to play with suit jackets and waistcoats for each decade presented in the play a lot more effectively.

Strip away the birth/death celebrations of Will on the day of the performance, the interludes of memory, the tragic device of comedic transfusion employed by writing and direction that would make Shakey himself proud – make no mistake: this play is very much a tragedy.

The arras is tied back stage right and hides nothing. The story is punctuated by funerals and weddings; the trail leads to the sudden death of a child and the shockwaves sent rippling through the family. It is the path of a female protagonist who is no longer silenced nor diminished by precocious Georgians looking to rewrite the Folio. The play’s the thing. Once again, the Three Minute Theatre and the Manchester Shakespeare Company are unjustly hidden gems fighting for air on the scene. Think Shakespeare in Love in the hands of Ken Loach. Will & Anne is no tacky a-lister historical fetish, lazy satire or easy sentimentalist play. This play burns a searing light yet houses a large, understanding and patient love for Anne, Will, their children and their formative years.

Manchester Shakespeare Company are looking to take Will & Anne on tour across the UK.

Will + Anne John Topliff

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