For anyone who has always been bothered by the niggling question of why Shakespeare would have willed his wife, Anne Hathaway, his second-best bed, there is now an answer for you. (One answer, anyhow; I have my own theories!) I was fortunate enough this weekend to see a performance of a newish play by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen, called Shakespeare's Will.
The play is a monologue by Anne Hathaway. As it opens, she is returning from Shakespeare's burial, with his will in her hand. She has not read it yet, and puts it off by reminiscing about their lives together. She begins with how they met, how they married and produced children, how they arranged their marriage to suit them both - an explanation of why Shakespeare lived in London for so long, separated from his family. She reports on her relationship with her own father, with her children, with Shakespeare's sister Joan ("Your sister is a bitch. I'm sorry, but she is.") She also refers to her relations with other men, and Will's with other men as well. The play is approximately 90 minutes long, and when she finally opens the will and reads it during the last few minutes, it is a moment so moving that I was strongly regretting not bringing any kleenex.
The power of the play was amplified by this staging. It is a tour de force for Seana McKenna; she captivates with her ability to populate the stage through her imagination. When she is talking about the first time Anne and Will met, you can nearly see him lounging nearby as she provides a dialogue between them. When she reveals her father's reaction to her marrying Will ("Jesus Christ! With child, and a Catholic, and a Shakespeare!") you can feel the force of an angry father storming around the stage. Her evocation of having to deal with her first child alone and uncertain of how to care for her is heartwrenching, as are a few other moments that I will not spoil for anybody who will want to see it or read it. The stage was simply set, with a bench and a set of stairs and small platform that she ranged over. Much of the scene-setting was done with lighting and sound effects (the sea, rain, children laughing or crying) as she moved into her memories. She talks for 90 minutes, and does not permit the audience's attention to flag for a moment. A beautiful, beautiful performance, one that you should not miss if at all possible for you to see it. If it is not, well, try to read the play. It is thought-provoking, funny, touching, and looks at Shakespeare from a different angle. Well worth the effort for anyone interested in Shakespeare and bemused by his will.