The Phoenix Theatre Company opens its 2022-2023 season with a production whose story is based largely on fact. And what a fascinating story it is! Imagine that you are arguably the greatest playwright of all time, but all of your works — every last one of them — are either lost, stolen, destroyed, or never actually put to paper beginning to end. Imagine if this fact is discovered three years after your death.
When William Shakespeare died, his stage plays lived on primarily in the performing of them. Printing was a costly affair and was not seen as entirely necessary. Various economical methods were employed to transcribe what the Bard had written in his own hand. Mostly, that consisted of each actor’s sides, which were mere snippets of the scenes the actors were in; and “quartos” — pirated versions of some plays and verse printed on large sheets then folded in quarters and sold for sixpence a piece.
In fact, nothing at all written in Shakespeare’s hand — save for a few signatures on legal documents — has survived the ages. This would make perfect sense in light of the fact that, in Shakespeare’s time, plays were not considered literature, and Shakespeare was not highly regarded by his contemporaries. (Liken this to some notes you might have jotted down then transcribed to a Word doc. Do you know where the handwritten original is?)
The Book of Will chronicles the efforts of Henry Condell (played by Grant Goodman) and John Heminges (played by Michael Kary), two actors and friends of Shakespeare, to gather the collective works of the Bard and have them printed. (Today, we know this compilation as “The First Folio”.) The inspiration comes to them both when fellow actor Richard Burbage (played by Scott Davidson) dies. Burbage — along with Shakespeare, Condell, and Heminges — was a shareholder in the Globe Theatre. Burbage was arguably the greatest expert on Shakespeare’s plays, as evidenced by his dozens of performances in such lead roles as MacBeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.
In recreating the person of Richard Burbage, Scott Davidson employs a resonant and impassioned characterization of a man robust in life and uncompromising in his craft. Davidson’s performance, replete with impromptu outbursts of passionate Shakespearean verse, leaves an indelible impression on us long after the character’s untimely demise partway through the story.
The Book of Will is, understandably, male-dominated. Playwright Lauren Gunderson recognized the challenge of telling the story of the 17th century English stage where the women’s roles — some quite iconic such as Lady Macbeth and Portia — were routinely played by men. However, in relating historical events, some strong female figures emerge as integral to the success of the real-life mission. Chief among these women is John Heminges’ daughter, Alice (played by Bonnie Beus Romney). Through her own self-determination, she inspires the trio of thespians (and later, just the duo), in their efforts to preserve Shakespeare’s works for prosperity, despite having neither the money nor the means to accomplish the feat.
Lacking both funds and actual printed plays, Condell and Heminges prepare for inevitable failure only to be approached with the patronage of arguably the worst scoundrel in England, William Jaggard (played by Scott Davidson). Jaggard has amassed a small fortune by surreptitiously pirating many of Shakespeare’s plays and selling them in quatro format to other performing troupes. He sees this undertaking as just another money making opportunity.
If the name Scott Davidson is familiar to you, it is because Davidson played the actor Richard Burbage in Act I. The transition to the new character is so complete that we must check the playbill several times to confirm that it is the same man. From robust and stentorian to unctuous and manipulative, Davidson executes a transformation that is so flawless as to be undetectable.
The Phoenix Theatre Company has put together a creative team and cast who understand the importance of this forgotten bit of history. Indeed, the very nature of the craft — of Theatre — could have taken a very different turn if not for the overarching influence of William Shakespeare’s works. The First Folio — and consequently, The Book of Will — is a metaphor for preserving a legacy for future generations.
The First Folio preserved eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays that had never been printed before, including All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and eight others. The Phoenix Theatre Company pays homage to these great works in the production of prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson’s historic comedy, The Book of Will.