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Review: The Book of Will at Shakespeare North Playhouse ****1/2

It’s easy to take Shakespeare for granted. The man and his works have always been there as a presence in our lives – both on stage and in our everyday language.

And yet, as Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will reveals, but for the vision and exertions of a small group of people four centuries ago we would be living in a world with no Macbeth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, The Tempest or Twelfth Night.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, he left no comprehensive archive of his plays. Instead, some existed as full scripts, some as singular parts, some in pirated versions recalled (badly) from original productions, and some purely as lines in actors’ memories.

Appalled by this turn of affairs, two of the playwright’s friends and fellow thesps – John Heminge and Henry Condell – decided to try and draw together these existing fragments into what became the First Folio, 400 years old next month.

Gunderson’s clever, droll and at times moving reimagining of this feat is brought to the stage in a deliciously inventive co-production (in the round) by Shakespeare North Playhouse, Bolton Octagon and Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch which fair zings with energy and an evident love for its subject.

While the Bard of Stratford may be long gone, his friends, rivals and admirers are vividly brought to life from Heminge (Russell Richardson) and Condell (Niall Costigan) to the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Carrie Quinlan) to the wily businessman printer Jaggard (Zach Lee – who also declaims brilliantly as Burbage) who is more concerned about cash than copyright.

Above: A slideshow of images from The Book of Will. Photos by Pamela Raith Photography. Top: The Book of Will. Photo by Meg Terzza.

There isn’t a weak link among the 10-strong cast, and there’s also much to appreciate in the forceful, well-rounded female characters Gunderson has crafted. Think Beatrice not Bianca.

You certainly don’t have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays to follow the story or enjoy the experience, but those versed in his (blank) verse will relish the shared themes and recognisable characters that pop up – as well as the sly jokes, including some eye-rolling wordplay and a running gag about Pericles.

Talking of characters, Andrew Whitehead, a stalwart of Northern Broadsides, plays the Falstaffian figure of rival playwright Ben Jonson with the wild-eyed glee of a booming Brian Blessed (with just possibly a little bit of Broadsides’ Barrie Rutter in there for good measure).

Above: An original copy of Shakespeare's First Folio on show at Shakespeare North.

Lottie Wakeham directs with warmth and wit, and movement director Jonnie Riodan brings a pleasing, sinuous slo-mo choreography to the scenes inside Jaggard’s printing house.

If you’re already passionate about Shakespeare, you’ll revel in Gunderson’s love letter to live theatre – “playing fictions for willing dreamers” as Richardson’s Heminge says.

If Shakespeare has never really been on your radar, you’ll be intrigued to find out more.

And if you’ve somehow fallen out of love with his work over the years, your enthusiasm will be reignited – not least by the play’s closing minutes which effortlessly show (and celebrate) what a seismic storyteller Shakespeare was and continues to be.

Setting the bar for added value teeteringly high, Shakespeare North Playhouse is also staging a fascinating, complementary exhibition about the First Folio on site which – thanks to a loan from the British Library – has a rare original copy of the real ‘book of Will’ at its heart.


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