By Danielle Farrow
‘Shakespeare Tonight’ interviews William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon as arch-rivals on a tv chat show hosted by a minor celebrity who is under pressure as this is – according to the producer – her last chance to book a second series. There are questions put to Shakespeare about his writing – is it all his? – psychological issues set up for him – principally about his relationship with his father – and there is a warm up man / reader of tweets to get the ball rolling and bring social media into the mix.
Unfortunately, the psychological issues do not bring depth, but are rather served to us on a platter: we are told rather than shown, so that superficiality is the order of the day not only where planned – in this world of cut-throat tv entertainment – but throughout. Neither script nor performances are layered, though Shakespeare and his wife do their best to impact emotionally. However, this emotion reached by the actors is achieved because the script / director called for it, rather than because it built naturally and believably. Overall the acting is patchy, with one player – thankfully on less than most of the others – achieving a performance of such unbelievable, over the top disconnection that it would have been cringe-worthy even in a bad school show. The cast did try to help each other out when lines were lost, but true engagement seemed hampered by hesitancy and lack of confidence in themselves / the material, and there needs to be more real listening to each other. Occasionally, though, the piece flowed better, and the central four actors had times of hitting comic moments well.
The script is ambitious in putting across a lot of information about Shakespeare and Bacon, touching on authorship and biographical elements within a light entertainment frame. There are pleasing references and lines for those familiar with Shakespeare’s works woven in, and the shaping of the play ‘Hamlet’ – of which there are differing early versions – is explored, mostly via altercations between Shakespeare and Bacon. Again, though, there is a lack of the kind of layering and natural building of story (as opposed to forced contrivances) which can lead to audiences caring about the characters.
‘Shakespeare Tonight’ seems something of a vehicle for a theory to do with Shakespeare’s father, and a way to try to make Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s life of interest to those who might generally prefer chat shows and social media to centuries-old plays. Such are not mutually exclusive, of course, but even for people interested in all of these, this production needs a consistently strong cast to really make it work on any level, and further script work to make us actually care.