For those amongst you who are fans of Shakespeare’s amazing plays – it is unbelievable to think that if his Kings men friends John Heminge and Henry Condell had not had the courage and devotion in 1619 (3 years after the playwright’s death) to gather his works in the first folio , that a lot of his works of art (up to 18) would be lost to history forever. The likes of King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, the Tempest, Measure for Measure, Julius Ceasar, Macbeth and A Midsummer nights’ dream, may never have been in our lives at all.
Following the bard’s death in 1616, his works were strewn across the city of London. During the times that the plays were shown at the Globe in London, the actors were only given their own lines, as to not have the plays stolen or lost. During these times and after his death some of the transcripts were hidden away and some tragically were destroyed.
And so, the story unfolds- in seeing an amateur hashing Hamlet one day, with an awful and very inaccurate rendition, the friends of the scholar (the Kings Men) realise something had to be done. These friends unite with their wives and family, using every resource at hand, to gather together the plays before they are lost forever. As the plays were in pieces and had never been gathered before, this was a huge and challenging task. One scrupulous man, William Jaggard, had already put some plays together and published a book, but the Kings Men were appalled as the contents were inaccurate and fake. With the assistance of compositor Ralph Crane and William Jaggard’s son Isaac, the ensemble commences their epic mission to build an accurate, historical folio to retain their friend’s work forever.
Each cast member made us instantly empathetic to their quest and as we witnessed them endure 4 years of loss, desperation, anguish, love and despair, their sublime talent had each member of the audience in hypnotised awe.
These demanding years resulted in 36 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, being bound in this first folio (divided into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies,) and being published in 1623 – 7 years after Shakespeare’s death. Once the first folio was printed the friends in devotion to the memory of their friend, take the folio to Anne Hathaway and daughter Susanne (I really hope that that actually happened) and in this scene we have snippets of these plays- a stroke of genius!
The costumes were amazing, the setting – very authentic, the script – superb and the acting – magnificent. We were engulfed into the 17th century with all the tribulations of that era, throughout. This play was written by Lauren Gunderson and as an avid Shakespeare fan has written a masterpiece. She depicts in the Book of Will, how through love anything is possible. To think that without the love of his true friends – all his work could have been lost forever. Lauren has stated that from this play we the audience should induce that, “We accomplish nothing truly meaningful on our own” and I agree whole heartedly. It is 400 years since this first folio was printed how apt that this play is shown in a Shakespearian theatre today.
The play was an absolute gem. Each actor showed immense talent and perception – I have to list all cast – Jessica Ellis (Alice Heminges), Zach Lee (Richard Burage/William Jaggard)), Tomi Ogbaro (Ralph Crane), Helen Pearson (Rebecca Heminges) Carrie Quilan (Elizabeth Condell), Russell Richardson (John Heminges), Callum Sim (Isaac Jaggard), Tarek Slater (Boy Hamlet), Niall Costigan (Henry Condell) and Andrew Whitehead (Ben Johnson), as each were showstoppers in themselves. Andrew Whithead was awesome- I must say and for me resembled Brian Blessed in his role!
The scene when Niall Costigan and Russell Richardson discuss the grief of losing a wife had tears rolling down my face and was one of the best acting, I have ever seen in my many years as a theatre goer and reviewer.
As I left the theatre, I heard audience members saying, “that was fantastic!” “The best I’ve seen!” “Wow!” I could not agree more. If you enjoy seeing a remarkable story, written superbly, played by magnificent actors in an awesome theatre – then this play is for you. Don’t miss it!
Playing until 11th November.
Reviewer: Jan Mellor
Reviewed: 20th October 2023
North West End UK Rating: