An act of courage is required from anyone who tries to write about Shakespeare’s wife, Ann Hathaway. There is virtually no first-hand material and acquaintances are not always reliable. Friends like Ben Jonson both praised and decried Shakespeare at different times, and to top it all off he ended up being the main mover and shaker behind the First Folio. So hats off to Vern Thiessen for having the courage in Shakespeare’s Will, now playing in Lenox at Shakespeare and Company, to make something large out of very little indeed.
Many of Mr. Thiessen’s speculations are close to the truth, I daresay. The separation between husband and wife which Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway endured cannot have been easy, their difference in age a more substantial difficulty than it is nowadays. It is important to remember that separation between husband and wife in Jacobean England was not uncommon, and often made necessary by employment (or unemployment). Many of the play’s suppositions were an excellent combination of imagination and probability; only a couple of things jarred. I cannot imagine the Bard himself speaking in mono-syllables or writing four-word letters. We know, because we have Hamlet, that Shakespeare was fundamentally changed by the death of his son Hamnet. This leads strongly to the conclusion that he was in contact with his family, and he may very well have been diligent about it.
Equally creative in this adventure is the actress who must keep us with her, earn our sympathy, perhaps even annoy us, for 75 or 80 minutes. This was deftly done by Kristin Wold. Most laudable in her performance was her ability to balance the constant ups and downs of it all. Ms. Wold had an ease in it, and she did not move too quickly through, making us feel like it was going to be a long go. More and more, I begin to understand that acting is really about pace. Ms. Wold found the right tempo, never too high, never too low, never too fast, never too slow. She had sharpness which could easily become tender. The changes were well articulated, not abruptly imposed. She held us securely.
Blazing and Gazing
The two poles of my admiration of and education in the greatest of the arts, that being singing, have been Norman Treigle and John Shirley-Quirk, both bass-baritones. Mr. Treigle, a hot and troubled genius, is long gone. Mr. Shirley-Quirk, an octogenarian, has just recently left us. These two artists could not have been more different. Treigle’s art, it has to be said, was destructive in some way, When one was on stage with him, it was quite literally frightening. He was taking something apart; he was determined to get to the center of it. He took it apart by eliminating everything, until he reached that thing which could not be eliminated. This then shone with a red hot energy, which once heard and seen, could never be forgotten.
Mr. Shirley-Quirk put things together. One felt like every line of the lied he was singing had been fully contemplated word by word, and made into a coherent whole that was a surfeit of beauty. He made detail passionate. Some thought him a cool singer, not given to outbursts or theatrics of any kind, even in the virtuoso role Benjamin Britten wrote for him in Death in Venice in which he played several nefarious characters in rapid succession. But his art was never in any way cold. It was in fact a cornucopia, a surplus of imagination. The detail of it, the elegance, the perfectly honed sound, made it a voice like no other.
John-Shirley Quirk as The Angel of the Agony in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. Simon Rattle, et.al. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Warner.
What do you do with these two titans? Remember. What was finally and intimately instructive in being around them was that they had found their way. They were their way. I’m thinking now of a single phrase that Shirley-Quirk sang at the end of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, as the Angel of the Agony. After searingly describing the Purgatorial fires and guiding the soul through them, he painted their ultimate destination, gazing upon the most Holy. The line is, “Where they shall ever gaze on Thee.” The way he sang the word “gaze” — slightly too long, slightly straight, perfectly gaged so that the whole phrase could be sung on one breath, making the z expressive, was a perfect example his finish , of the constructive nature of his approach. And it was unforgettable.