Simon Callow in Being Shakespeare
At the Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
By Jonathan Bate
Directed by Tom Cairns
An actor for all Shakespeare
One of the best moments in Being Shakespeare is when Simon Callow enacts the scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream where a group of country bumpkins assembles to cast parts for a dramatic sketch. One determined character wants to play all the roles– the romantic hero, the lovely heroine, and even a ferocious lion (and promises to deliver threatening roars). While this amateur is dissuaded, Callow, in contrast, shows how a fine professional can successfully master highly varied characters. The vignette becomes a microcosm of the play as Callow assumes role after famous role, declaiming some of the bard’s most notable speeches.
This virtuoso recap of memorable moments from Shakespeare is the best part of the play.
Less successful is what happens between these speeches when Callow, in quiet, informal chat mode, fills in the background and history supplied by historian/author Jonathon Bate. The problem is neither with the history nor the resulting monologues, but with their delivery. Perhaps the theater is just too large and cavernous a hall. Perhaps Callow was tired on opening night, after his afternoon dress rehearsal. Whatever the reason, it was quite difficult to hear and understand his lines. Pertinent, often wry and humorous, comments are lost when he drops his tone or seems to mumble. This is certainly unfortunate as what we could hear was interesting and revelatory. Miking him would solve the problem. During intermission, this reviewer sought hearing aids from the theater box office, but lest readers think this was a limited, personal failing, others in the audience also complained about not being able to hear and follow the story.
On a more positive note, the play is very well structured — unfolding a theme which encompasses the “seven stages of man” (from As You like It) with many illustrative speeches. There is no question that Callow is a Shakespeare aficionado who fully believes that the Bard’s plays — both their topics and execution — reveal much of his life. In the playbill he is quoted as saying, “Being Shakespeare is a voyage of discovery for me which I have found deeply affecting, because he deals with nothing less than all of human life.” However, full appreciation of the play does depend on some knowledge of Shakespeare and the ability to recognize (and often internally recite) famous speeches.
Visually, the play is well done, as Callow moves around the nearly bare stage, making the most of minimal props, taking advantage of chair groupings, and — especially — enhancing the dramatic moments when standing in front of his large- than-life shadow.
What we saw was effective and what we heard was well worth hearing. What a shame to have missed any of the lines.
For more info checkout the Being Shakespeare page at theatreinchicago.com
Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St., 800-775-2000, www.chicagoshakes.com, Tickets $45-75, runs Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 1 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and Sundays at 2 and 8 pm through April 29. Run time one hour and 45 minutes (with a 15-minute intermission).