THIS WEEK AT THE BROAD STAGE

Two Broad Stage productions caught my attention this week: “Small Mouth Sounds” on the main stage and “Shakespeare, His Wife and The Dog” at the Edye, the smaller black box theatre.

I spoke with Philip Whitchurch, who wrote “Shakespeare, His Wife and The Dog,” and stars in it with his real-life wife, actress Sally Edwards, as William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway. (I never did ask about The Dog.)

The play originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014 and did a multi-city tour of the UK for 9 weeks last year. It’s at The Edye for 12 performances only, January 18 – 28, with a preview tonight.

THE HISTORIC SHAKESPEARE

Bear in mind, there’s not much known biographically about Shakespeare. We know he married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she was 26, and that she was pregnant. We know he worked in London as an actor, and began writing plays. He and Anne had three children (his son, Hamnet, died young), so we know he commuted back and forth to Stratford for a few “productive” visits.

But, ironically, there are very few words about the personal life of a man whose own words have passed through centuries to become almost immortal. And that, says Philip Whitchurch (“Call me Phil!”) “is what’s so glorious about being able to write about him.”

Academics analyze the text, he says. “There’s a lot of material on or around Shakespeare, but the actual known facts about him are very few. The rest is conjecture and that’s the fun part for us. As actors, it we come at him from a performer’s point of view. Once you start to read the plays and speak the language, you get a sense of what the material is about in a way that academics can’t.”

SOUNDS OF THE TIMES

As we were talking, I noticed a hint of Liverpool in Phil’s speech (shades of The Beatles!) and he said, “That’s where I’m from. But I don’t speak in a Liverpool accent on stage!

“It’s interesting; we know what Shakespeare’s words are, but we know nothing about how speech actually sounded at the time,” he explained. “We worked with Charmian Hoare, a well-known vocal coach now with the National Theatre in London, and while academics have discerned something called Original Pronunciation, what you’ll hear from us onstage is something of a West Country accent.

“We didn’t want to use the straight, standard English accent, because it just seemed wrong.  We know how extraordinary Shakespeare’s words are, but we also wanted to show him as a man of the people. We revere Shakespeare but in many ways, he was an ordinary man who just happened to be the greatest living playwright of his time.”

Shakespeare came back to Stratford a rich man. Did he or didn’t he have affairs when he was in London? Phil responds, “It’s thought that he had flirtations with both men and women, and though we don’t really know, if you look at his sonnets and plays, you get a hint at what kind of life he must have had and the kinds of people he knew.”

Phil’s play, however, isn’t about the affairs or his career, at least not directly. “I wanted to write an homage to marriage,” he says. “There must have been something going on between him and Anne; they were married for 34 years, they had 3 children, and at the end of his life, he came back to Stratford and put all his money into his properties there to secure their futures.

“But like any married couple who’ve lived a life together, with one partner gone much of the time, there were estrangements. I wanted to write not just a love story, but the warts-and-all relationship of a long marriage, and how despite it all, in the end they still love each other.”

Which begs the question, how reflective is this play of Phil’s marriage? “Funny enough,” he says, “Sally and I have never worked together before this project. We’ve been married 26 years and have both been in the business for 40 years. I’ve always had great respect for Sally’s work, and now I can honestly say, she’s very easy to work with!”

They named their production company “Bated Breath.” The words come from Shylock, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. “It means a state of expectation, and in our case, we hope it’s the expectation that we will achieve something good!”

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS

For whatever reason, I thought the entirety of this main stage play was performed completely in silence. It’s not.

The players are attending a silent retreat, with the unseen “guru” telling them what to expect, what the rules are and eventually, why there are no answers to the search they have set out upon. He says in a soothing meditative voice, “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits, your routines, yourself. It is the best kind of vacation. Because after this you don’t ever have to go back to who you were.”

Everyone’s in pain for different reasons and there’s a lot of miming of emotions, silent screams, silent tears, silent laughter…we grasp their back stories, mostly without words.

It’s an interesting premise, and there were moments, but with the world’s tallest person sitting in front of me, it was difficult to discern all the subtleties of the facial and bodily expressions.

Go ahead, take a chance; there are definitely relatable and laughable moments. “Small Mouth Sounds” is onstage through January 28.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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