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'Shakespeare's Will' offers profile of Anne Hathaway with a modern eye

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'Shakespeare's Will' at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA

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Where there’s a will, there must have been a way, or at least a reason. For over four centuries, scholars have speculated as to the reasons why William Shakespeare’s last will and testament left his widow, Anne Hathaway, only his “second-best bed” and the accompanying furniture following his death. Did this indicate some deep resentment of his marriage to Anne and a final desire to punish her, or was this merely the custom of the period, knowing that her surviving children were expected to care for her into her old age.

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Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen’s 2005 play “Shakespeare’s Will” posits some controversial explanations as it attempts to provide a realistic, believable portrait of a significant figure in English literature about whom little is known. This of course allows the playwright some flexibility in creating a full character, bound only by the limited historical record. As a result, Thiessen’s Anne is a simultaneously tragic and resilient figure who seems to genuinely love her husband while accepting the fact that he will never love her fully back. And while they share three children and experience a heartbreaking loss, these commonalities drive them further apart rather than bring them closer together.

Lenox’s esteemed Shakespeare & Company is opening its 2014 summer season with Thiessen’s one person play about Mrs. Shakespeare in an engrossing and literate production directed by Daniela Varon. It is significant that the 37-year old company has decided to open its season celebrating the 450th birthday of Shakespeare with a production about his wife, but Thiessen’s contemporary sensibilities which infuse his play helps create a link enabling modern audiences to better understand the customs and traditions of Elizabethan England.

Kristen Wold, a member of the company for 25 years, is a vivid Anne, bringing a fierce intensity to a character we first meet on the afternoon of Shakespeare’s funeral who then recalls her unusual relationship with the playwright that begins 34 years previously when they meet at a country fair. Although separated by a nine year age difference, with Shakespeare being 18 and Hathaway 27 or so, Thiessen has them quickly connect resulting in an unplanned pregnancy. They agree to marry, although a remarkably understanding Hathaway accepts that the aspiring actor and future playwright’s true proclivities favor the same sex. This sets up the unusual arrangement for the 16th century that follows, with Hathaway raising the couple’s son and two daughters while her husband relocates to London to pursue his various dreams, returning only occasionally to visit his family.

Thiessen depicts this from Hathaway’s point of view, revealing the sacrifices she has had to make which include risking the wrath of her intolerant, angry father who resents Shakespeare’s choice of career, acting, and religion, Catholic. Hathaway is looked down upon by members of Shakespeare’s own family, particularly his haughty sister, and often eyed suspiciously by other residents of Stratford. Wold touchingly depicts Hathaway’s determination to proceed as well as her dedication to her children, while subtly hinting at the difficulties caused by her husband’s lengthy absences. As the plague strikes England, it sets in motion a series of events leading to a tragedy for which, Thiessen implies, Shakespeare forever blamed his wife.

The stage is set quite simply but ingeniously by Patrick Brennan which means a lot must ride on Wold’s performance, and she holds the audience’s attention winningly. There are a table and chairs, some hooks on the back wall for changes in clothing, and unbeknownst to the audience originally, that famous “second best” bed, which initially is hidden behind a floor to ceiling wrap-around curtain on which is written Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145, which Anne says was a wedding night gift from her husband. The sonnet is indeed believed to have been written early in Shakespeare’s career and is does contain some rather rudimentary (and perhaps subconsciously rude) puns on the Hathaway name, specifically references to Anne taking the “hate-away” from his life. She then pulls the curtain away to reveal the marital bed, which at a later point turns around to reveal in a cupboard-like opening a depiction of a scene that holds significant memories—both glorious and tragic—for Hathaway.

Govane Lohbauer has designed Anne’s costume with stunning period Elizabethan accuracy, particularly as Wold merrily removes the layers upon layers of garments that apparently typically required of women of the time. Matthew Miller’s lighting helped to signal the jumps back and forth in time, with a suggestion of the ominous as Hathaway continues to ignore her sister-in-law’s pleas to read the will. Alexander Sovronksy’s sound and music design remained uncompromised by a patron’s mP3 player that caused some annoying whispers of classical music to waft across the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre with which Wold handled with unexpected and much-appreciated aplomb. Her appropriately forceful interpretation of Hathaway’s dictatorial father’s exclamations brought the audience quickly back into the play and allowed Thiessen’s speculation on life of Shakespeare’s widow to continue apace.

It is Wold and Varon’s interpretation of Hathaway that holds the play together, with a modern sensibility that shows Hathaway accepting her husband’s special relationship with another man that fills the sonnets with so much emotion, as well as her ability to press ahead on behalf of her children. We don’t know if Hathaway enjoyed other relationships outside of her marriage, but with the eyes of her in-laws and the community on her, it seems that at least in Thiessen’s view it was doubtful, although she does use her charms to help her family escape to a seaside retreat at the height of the plague.

So, as the world celebrates the Bard’s 450th birthday, it’s well worth the time to think about Mrs. Shakespeare on the occasion of her 459th, as to whether it would be fair to refer to her as “long suffering” or as a woman ahead of her time, who knew that it was all up to her in order to survive.

“Shakespeare’s Will” will be playing throughout the summer at Shakespeare & Company, with performances on a rotating schedule through Sunday, August 24. For dates and times and to purchase tickets, call the box office at 413.637.3353 or visit the theater’s website at www.shakespeare.org.

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