By Shelley A. Sackett
Ever wonder about the immediate aftermath of Shakespeare’s death, how his plays were preserved in an era when plays were not considered to be important works of literature, plots were largely constructed by the actors and written out in a ‘fair copy’ for their records by the company scribes, and new plays were churned out at an incredibly fast rate to provide the companies with enough material to keep performing new shows all the time?
Well, wonder no more.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s must-see production of ‘The Book of Will’ brings the story of Shakespeare’s legacy, and the women and men devoted to creating and preserving it, to life. Director Courtney O’Connor weaves magic from a smart and inspired script by playwright Lauren Gunderson. For two hours and 15 minutes (with intermission), we willingly time travel back to an era of pubs, plays and camaraderie.
Sound Elizabethan and dull? Not a chance! But first, a little more context.
Playwriting then was a little like writing for a sitcom or a soap opera in the modern day, and once a play was performed, the acting companies would only keep the scripts if they felt they might revive them again down the road. If not, they might sell them off to a publishing house, who would try and make a quick profit on them.
By Shakespeare’s time, printing was more common, and book publishing was more of a commercial enterprise. Yet, Shakespeare’s plays were not published all together in his own lifetime. John Heminges, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell, fellow actors in the Kings Men and devoted friends of the Bard, began collecting the various published versions of Shakespeare’s plays, actors’ scripts, and scribal copies, and edited them together into the First Folio, published in 1623.
The whole project was perhaps an attempt to eulogize Shakespeare and make his work last forever. It’s partly these reasons that allowed his writings to become part of the fabric of English culture and language. His works, which most certainly would have been lost, have been read and circulated endlessly and have had a life of their own, though Shakespeare himself is long dead.
Janie E. Howland’s set, Elisabetta Polito’s costumes and Elizabeth Cahill’s sound design thrust us immediately into the thick of Stratford-on-Avon between 1619 and 1623. From the get-go, the talent and credibility of the actors is obvious. Particularly noteworthy are Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Ben Jonson and others, Will McGarrahan as Richard Burbage and William Jaggard, and the magnificent Ed Hoopman as Henry Condell. (I could listen to Hoopman recite the phone book.)
If Gunderson has strayed from historical fact, it is in her inclusion of women as prominent players in the project. These women are interesting, compelling, ambitious, funny and, in their own ways, powerful. There is not one weak link among the actors. Grace Experience as Alice Heminges (whom she plays with an Audrey Hepburn elegance), Shani Farrell as Elizabeth Condell, and Sarah Newhouse as Rebecca Heminges each bring their own nuances to their roles.
Lest you think this is a play reserved for Shakespeare nerds, think again. Gunderson has infused the script with humor, poetry, pathos and intrigue — ingredients for entertaining theater — as well as factual history.
“Shakespeare doesn’t need much help in being revered. He needs help in being human. That’s the real heart of this story,” Gunderson said in an interview. “It really has to be the emotional reason that these people did this almost impossible thing. It comes down to their loves and friendships that really provide the engine for this effort.”
“The Book of Will.” Written by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design by Christopher Brushberg; Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill. Produced by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 140 Clarendon St., Boston through March 27.
For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.lyricstage.com/