John-Paul Flintoff

The other Shakespeare

I rounded off Shakespeare’s birthday yesterday by witnessing one of the most brilliant bits of theatre I’ve seen in a very long time: a one-woman show, about Will’s wife Anne Hathaway.

Now, despite my interest in Shakespeare (did I mention that I studied him for my Master’s degree?), I should confess that I have never really cared much about Anne’s story. Last night’s performance set me right, demonstrating that imagination and empathy can bring even the most shadowy historical figure to life.

Writing this hours later, it still seems quite incredible that the actress playing Ann (Johanne Murdock) could even remember all the words, let alone deliver them with feeling, in a performance that lasted nearly 90 minutes. The Other Shakespeare, by Roy Chatfield, was not like Krapp’s Last Tape (one of my all-time favourite plays), which passes largely in silence: in Chatfield’s play Anne chatters rages frets and dreams aloud throughout. And sings.

Several bits will stick in my mind: the joyful dancing; the harrowing death of her son, and his funeral while Will was in London; the pain of knowing that all Stratford had read her husband’s lovestruck sonnets, written for somebody else; and the very funny moment when Anne, full of scorn, showed Will that she, too, could act – then roared like a medieval mummer doing Herod.

It’s extraordinary enough when actors, together with each other onstage, put something across with such conviction that you suspend disbelief and become truly absorbed. For Murdock to achieve that alone, with nobody up there to play off, and to move seamlessly through such a range of moods – as Ann’s life gradually unfolds – is frankly miraculous. This was live theatre at its absolute best. Hats off!

I’m not the only person who was impressed. Afterwards I overheard the author, who had never met Murdock, saying he felt dazed by what she’d done. (In a good way, lest there be any doubt.)

I saw the play in Oxford, at the Mitre. I understand it may be showing again soon at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Theatre, and maybe afterwards in London. If you know any producers – do tell them about it!

PS. I should perhaps note that the play was directed by my father, Ian Flintoff. I don’t see why this should discredit what I’ve written above.

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