David Hume, the Edinburgh based polymath, was not a big Shakespeare fan. Sure, for his time Shakespeare was impressive, but in the great scheme of things and compared to eighteenth-century masters like Moliere or Swift, he was nothing special. This is not the Shakespeare we have grown accustomed to; that is, Shakespeare the timeless master, able to transcend class, cultural and even linguistic barriers.
It’s under the latter standard that Simon Callow springs gamely into the breach, leading us through an easily digestible history of England’s most famous writer. The show is sprinkled with recognisable reference points – Shakespeare was a product of a wider Tudor middle class; he lived in middle England and his father was subject to the tribulations of the first Elizabethan credit crunch. This is the sort of causal comparisons that would make an historian wince, but it proves an engaging way of delivering the life of Shakespeare in an entertaining manner.
The historical side is also fascinating, from Shakespeare’s early days in the vast, secret and primitive place of Stratford-upon-Avon, to the multi-cultural throng of London and his political relations with the regime of Elizabeth I.
When the spotlight descends on Callow, we find an excellent guide to early modern England. Beneath the appropriate wooden arches of the New College on the Mound, Callow fills the stage, bringing the tale to life. With gusto he dives into various Shakespearean roles, each helping to illustrate the Bard’s life; from the mewling, puking first moments of life, to the weakened and wandering hours of old age.
Like any icon of Shakespeare’s stature, the man is a difficult to pin down. Accordingly, he is never fully brought to life by the performance. Nevertheless, Callow’s entertaining, enthusiastic and educational narrative is great theatre.