(reviewed at the St Peter by the Waterfront arts centre on 11 June)
As its contribution to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages 2013-16 initiative and in conjunction with Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre’s annual Open Season, Black and White Productions have premièred Suzanne Hawkes’ Shakespeare in Suffolk.
I suspect that the problems inherent in managing a theatrical company haven’t changed very much from Greece and Rome to the Elizabethan and modern times. Actors throw hissy fits, voices give our at the wrong moment, too much drink can be inappropriately consumed, playwrights fuss over distortion to their finely-honed lines, sponsors demand something more than expected – the list is endless.
Hawkes presents us with a company on tour in Suffolk in the late 16th century. Her research has shown that companies with which Shakespeare was associated did indeed tour Suffolk at the appropriate dates, usually when plague threatened London, or the Puritan City fathers once more closed the playhouses, or while the court was on summer progress.
So we’re in a sequence of taverns. Henry IV has been a great success, though its Falstaff Will Kempe is somewhat at loggerheads with the author, not to mention the other senior members of the company. Richard Burbage and Henry Condell have their work cut out to keep the peace; finding a boy actor at short notice when the voice of the current player of female roles suddenly breaks doesn’t help.
Shakespeare has his own worries, wife and family (chiefly feisty daughter Susannah) among them. Then there’s his father, John Shakespeare, a wheeler-dealer who’s come a cropper – not for the first time. And somehow Christopher Marlowe turns up to plague him even further. You’ll gather that there’s a fair amount of time-shifting involved in all this.
The author plays the innkeeper Mistress Slowbody and is is also her own director. That’s something which lays its own traps. The play would benefit, in my opinion, by some judicious pruning. But the concept is a fascinating one and gives the impression that this is probably what it would have been like at that time and place.
Shakespeare in Suffolk is at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich on 14, 20 and 21 June.