Writer: William Shakespeare/Roger Rees
Reviewer: Sheila Cornelius
The set resembles a theatrical props store-room; a medieval throne and a bust of Shakespeare hold pride of place. Rees tells stories about his stage career and the audience become flies on the wall in a fantasy Green Room. The 68 year old Welsh-born actor entertains with details from his early days with the RSC as a ‘silent actor’ and scene painter in Wimbledon ‘within earshot of tennis balls’ to his later acclaimed Olivier-award-winning rôle in ‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’
Rees originally designed the show for young American actors. “I did it to take away the daunting aspect of performing Shakespeare and to let America’s young actors know that Shakespeare is very accessible.” Its origins are apparent in the banjo-like accompaniment to ‘Sigh no more, Ladies’, and the wonderful Thurber story about the American matron who reads ‘Macbeth’ like an Agatha Christie mystery: ‘Macduff did it alright!’
Equally funny are stories of comic backstage support staff, from dressers anxious only that costumes are displayed well, a props manager who supplies a blank scroll instead of the names of the dead at Agincourt and the down-to-earth theatrical landladies.
A slight figure in a grey waistcoat and shirt sleeves, Rees is at his best when playing the underdog. His performance of extracts from the plays underlines the poignancy of Shakespeare’s flawed heroes, especially Hamlet and Macbeth.
While his timing and delivery of anecdotes are spot-on, some of the speeches are disappointing and first-night nerves caused minor repetitions. Despite the superb lighting by David Plater for the famous ‘Is this a dagger that I see before me?’ speech in ‘Macbeth’, the delivery was too rapid. Romeo’s orchard speech lacked emotional depth for the same reason. But the Nurse, in a backwards-worn baseball cap was hilarious.
The show’s highlights are the moments of emotional poignancy, particularly when Rees pays tribute to the influences on his career. His comments, for instance, on a photo in the programme notes, resonate strongly when he recounts the moment when Lawrence Olivier heard about Ralph Richardson’s death. A revelation about his relationship with his own father and his interpretation of Hamlet is similarly affecting.
The hour-and-twenty-minutes ends up speeding by and for an evening that combines laughter and tears, What You Will at the Apollo Theatre fits the bill.