The Upstart Crow
Updated: Mar 27
The Gielgud Theatre, 11th March 2020
Ben Elton has really gone to London Town this time, with this extended live version of the daily life of the Bard. And it does rather feel like an extension of the TV show. Three helpings in one, even, with alas not three times as many jokes but the same jokes bashed out three times over. That’s being a bit harsh, maybe. Frequently the lines are social comments rather than jokes, and we all need to keep being reminded about injustice until the world is just.
The characters make copious references to the patriarchy, women being the property of men, women not being allowed to act, gender fluidity and non-consensual sex, and all of these come with a glint in the eye about how these issues will be resolved, or not, in the future. Which, for the audience, is our now. All worthy points, and all timely, but inside The Gielgud it feels as if we are being bombarded when most of us already get it.
Will (David Mitchell) has his own problems. Feeling frustrated at not being able to come up with his next great play. A case of playwright’s block, made worse by telling himself that he is a hack who just bangs out plays. Add to this the worry of losing favour with the recently installed monarch, England’s James 1st (Scotland's 6th Jimmy). And, as Burbage (Steve Speirs) tells Will,
“there’s no one more angry than an ex-patriate Scotsman in London.”
Mitchell was a bit shouty on stage himself, but he’s required to play the role in the style of Victor Meldrew at times, and for me, and for Ben Elton, he’s simply the best man for the role. Bottom (Rob Rouse) reminds the exasperated Will of the failings of some of his previous plays. The trouble with All’s Well That Ends Well was that it “didn’t end well”. On Measure For Measure, a problem play, “the problem was that it was shite!” And the thing about As You Like It was that “not many people did”.
Kate (Gemma Wheelan), a fine source of inspiration as ever, reminds Mr. Shakespeare that he gets most of his best ideas from the books she leaves in the little boy’s room. Will denies this at first, but he eventually goes off to find a story there. Throughout the play, he also writes down lines borrowed from those around him, mostly the female characters. Invariably, a killer line is preceded by the catch phrase “Hang on. Hang the futtock on!”
Will is also seeking a triple success. First, he claims to be greatest ever dramatist. Second, he considers himself to be the best ever poet. Now he wants to write the best ever stage direction, an achievement not quite up there with the rest of his attributes but still frustratingly hard to come by. Enter Mr. Whiskers (Reice Weathers), a grizzly bear, dancing under the charm of Kate’s flute. Inevitably, for now, Will fails to find his line.
At times, Mr Whiskers hides behind a tiny mask, completely fooling all with his disguise. In the garden, Dr. John Hall (Mark Heap) and Shakespeare’s daughters Susanna (Helen Monks) and Judith (Danielle Phillips) hide behind tiny trees. The many self-referential, witty reflections on stagecraft are great fun, though rather low-hanging fruit. We’re familiar with this from the small screen version.
Dr. John Hall (Mark Heap), cunningly not quite out of sight (photo: Johan Persson)
Alongside the theatrical fripperies, this stage production presents a complex and innovative dramatic structure. Right from the outset, we see the cast caught up in scenes from Shakespeare’s own plays, unaware that they are acting out any such scenarios. The play begins with a Twelfth Night style sea storm and separation of siblings, with a dash of The Tempest and Comedy of Errors thrown in. Then we see Dr. Hall being Malvolio’d, i.e. tricked into appearing in giant purple breeches and a yellow gartered codpiece and giving a wonderfully creepy performance.
Soon, Will becomes a real life King Lear, only he hasn’t written King Lear yet. That’s just one of the possible candidates for ‘next great play’. Ageing (a little) and ranting (a lot), Will gives third shares to Susanna, Judith and Kate, and wanders over the heath in madness, but then, in actual Jacobean England, reverts to normal when he is told that his daughters are his property, so he still has everything.
Will Shakes-Lear (David Mitchell), not quite giving it all away (photo: Johan Persson)
And then there is Othello. Another play yet to be written. Here, scenes of racial tension are acted out for real (within the Upstart Crow plot) with the help of the casualties from the disaster at sea, Desiree (Rachel Summers) and Arragon (Jason Callender). As African characters, played by black actors, the identical twins offer a natural solution for the essential casting problem of the Moor, but one which relies on so many layers of deception to satisfy legal requirements, with the added complexities of sexuality and gender swapping. “It is the cause, it is the cause”. Off stage, Burbage is arrested for acting in public when covered in blackface. Thank goodness we are not allowed to see that!
Perfect for the part. African royal twins auditioning for the role of Othello, Moor of Venice. Desiree (Rachel Summers), Arragon (Jason Callender) and cast (photo: Johan Persson)
Burbage (Steve Speirs) playing it his way, with Kate (Gemma Wheelan) somewhat taken aback (photo: Johan Persson)
In the closing stages, when Dr Hall is asked if he really is a doctor, he replies “I identify as a doctor”. Mr Elton is sailing dangerously close to the wind here, noting that identity is such a big thing for so many of us in current life. And finally, in a moment combining one last theatrical in-joke, hard-hitting social commentary, an only slightly scathing piss-take of the Bard, and the live acting out of a scene from Measure for Measure (repeated in several other Shakespeare plays), Dr. Hall proposes to Susannah and is accepted. Everything ends happily with a sudden and surprise marriage. All’s well that ends well? Maybe.
I missed Condell and Kemp, and perhaps most of all Anne Hathaway, smoking her pipe in manly fashion by the fireside and offering husband Will the title he is searching for at the end of an episode. But those who were there gave us a splendid evening of diversion and delight, whilst never straying far away from controversy and dilemma. The curtain dropped and we all exited, pursued by bear.
Exeunt Omnes. And that's how it's staying for the foreseeable future, alas.
© Eddie Hewitt 2020
The Upstart Crow: Official production page
The Upstart Crow – Delfont Mackintosh site