At the very end of his life William Shakespeare left London and returned to his wife and family in Stratford for two years to look after his land and his property. His wife Anne, it is thought, knew little of her husband’s work and had never even seen one of his plays, writes Jez Ashberry.
We know precious little about their relationship, and it is this which Lincoln writer David Owen Smith imaginatively explores in his new play A Sonnet for Anne, which opened last night in the Room Upstairs at Lincoln Drill Hall.
It is 1616, and King James is missing Shakespeare’s plays and his presence at court; so he dispatches Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson to Stratford to bring him out of retirement.
Johnson finds Shakespeare a changed man: his creative spark has vanished, his health is failing and he no longer finds much value in the contribution of poets and players to society. Jonson gives his old friend a gift – a book of Shakespeare’s own sonnets – and it is this which is the catalyst of the play’s real drama. Anne discovers the book and through reading the sonnets begins to understand both her husband’s creative genius and the wayward lifestyle he has led in the hurly-burly of Elizabethan London.
At first her lack of understanding causes friction between the two, but with Jonson’s help she comes to appreciate the beauty and power of Shakespeare’s poetry, and as proof of his love for her she asks her husband to write one last sonnet: Sonnet 155, dedicated to Anne herself.
Owen Smith’s play cleverly combines earthy 17th-century language and domesticity with the words of Shakespeare himself, using two ‘players’ to perform, rather than simply read, a selection of sonnets to link the scenes. This device, whereby a pair of actors (Jo Hollingworth and Stephen Gillard) stand outside the action, observing and reacting, has been employed before, but it works well here and adds depth and texture to the language of the play.
Richard Wood was an obvious choice as Shakespeare and he does not disappoint, presenting the bard as a larger-than-life figure now constrained by domestic life and plagued by ill health, a man who doubts his own greatness and is worn down by the guilt of having neglected his family in his younger days. John Armitage as Ben Jonson is an ideal counterpoint to Wood’s bluster: kindly, measured and ultimately only too keenly aware of the effect Shakespeare’s returning to London would have on his long-suffering wife.
But the star of the show is Anne herself, sensitively and beautifully portrayed by the talented Liz Lucas, whose character runs the gamut of emotions and holds the audience spellbound as she struggles with Shakespeare’s ill health and the gradual understanding of what her husband’s life in London entailed.
The Room Upstairs is a small venue which requires a creative approach to staging; for this production Indulgence Theatre set the audience on opposite sides with the action taking place in between. It made for an intimate theatrical experience, but in such a small space and with no stage there are inevitable problems with sightlines.
That does nothing to detract from the play itself, however, which is highly original and thought-provoking, and expertly directed by Janie Smith.
A Sonnet for Anne continues at The Room Upstairs at Lincoln Drill Hall on Thursday 26th and Friday 27th April at 8pm – please check ticket availability with the Drill Hall box office. Indulgence Theatre will also be performing an excerpt from the play at the Contact Theatre in Manchester on 26th May as part of the RSC Openstages festival.