Being Shakespeare - Review

  • Our critic's rating:

    The life of Shakespeare from birth to death is the subject of this one-man show starring one of Britain's favourite actors, Simon Callow. What's particularly remarkable about this show is the depth of detail we're offered. Not only do we learn about Shakespeare's life, but we also learn about Elizabethan society and attitudes, as well as background about the theatre business of the time, including relationships between various playwrights. Jonathan Bate's excellent play thus represents a monumental collation of material covering a vast array of sources and as such is impressive on its own account. Of course, the sheer volume of material could easily have caused problems if it were not for the fact that it's been pruned and fashioned into a readily digestible form which is easy compelling storytelling.

    The show is split into 7 different 'ages' of Shakespeare's life - an idea taken from the 'All The World's a Stage' speech from 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Though you might think this a shade on the contrived side, it helps us to navigate through the enormous amount of material and is also highly appropriate to tell the story of a playwright's life by using one of his own dramatic devices. What we learn of Shakespeare is that he was an ordinary man. He was not born into the aristocracy, but was the son of a glover and learnt that trade when his father fell on hard times and William had to leave grammar school to help out in the family business. Later, we discover Shakespeare in London, described by a rival playwright as the 'upstart crow', and follow his life through the courts where he was a regular litigant, and find him suffering personal losses, such as the death of his son, Hamnet, who contracted the plague and died at the age of eleven.

    Simon Callow is mesmerising. It's a hugely compelling performance which involves Mr Callow switching between narrator and various characters in The Bard's plays almost instantaneously. The style is conversational, intimate and engrossing. There's effective use of music and sound from Ben and Max Ringham. And Tom Cairns's elegant direction blends the warmth and humour in Mr Callow's narration with his instinctive understanding of Shakespearian characters and dialogue, to hold the audience spellbound for just shy of 2 hours.

    This is the kind of production which all can enjoy and learn from. Even if you've hated Shakespeare from schooldays, or found it incomprehensible, this will change your mind both about the man and his work. Jonathan Bate's superb play presents us with the life of an ordinary man who, through chance and experience, understood what it was to be human, and presented that knowledge through his wonderfully inventive use of language. And Simon Callow's inspirational performance captures Shakespeare's talent and humanity perfectly.

    (Peter Brown)

    "Engaging, informative, admirable one-man show."
    Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail

    "As an introduction to both the writer and his work, this show has much to recommend it, and though I still find Callow too bombastic a presence, his passion for Shakespeare shines through."
    Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph

    "Highly enjoyable show."
    Paul Callan for The Daily Express

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    Daily Telegraph -


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