Being Shakespeare is a strange piece, less a play than a lecture with lighting. For a little under two hours, Simon Cowell gives us a skeletal account of Shakespeare’s life, interspersing its major events with historical background and some of the Bard’s more famous scenes; really, it is a chance for him to play Lear and Hamlet and even Juliet, a collection of greatest hits, like Hugh Jackman on Broadway for the literary crowd.
The text, written by Jonathan Bate, isn’t itself particularly illuminating. It has some nice moments—like when he notes in his crisp English accent that The Forest of Arden is now home to a “Dunking Donuts” or when he speculates about which jobs Shakespeare might have held in his early twenties: “Tinker? Tailor? Soldier? Spy?” But we don’t leave the play invigorated. Being Shakespeare should either prove educational or inspiring or both, prompting its audience to claw its way out of the theater and run home to The Collected Works or to a book by James Shapiro. Instead, the play is lightly pleasing but completely disposable.
Mr. Cowell does, however, turn in a fine performance. His Marc Anthony is particularly moving (though there will never be another “For Brutus is an honorable man” like Brando’s) and he breezes through both acts as if a one-man show is no more taxing than an ensemble play. Granted, some of his interpretations tend to be a little too histrionic—his “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” is rather loud instead of defeated—but since the monologue is taken out of context, it doesn’t really matter.
I do worry, though, that it will end up a target for the anti-Stratfordians. The information provided isn’t exactly controversial—Shakespeare was educated in Latin at his grammar school, he began as an actor before turning to writing—and yet there were members of the audience quite willing to volunteer their discontent. I happened to sit next to a frothing Marlovian who spent the entire intermission giving everyone within earshot a lecture about “the facts” as well as a description of how his statistical analysis of the language in the plays proves that a man assassinated in 1593 wrote The Winter’s Tale. Just to be sure we got the point, he would also conspicuously snort at any mention of Will’s son, Hamnet.
Still, whatever your stand on the authorship question, Being Shakespeare should not be taken as a call to arms. It is not “propaganda” but highbrow lowbrow entertainment, an easy, fun piece of fluff.