Callow has depth.
That’s among the most obvious reactions to the new one-man show, "Being Shakespeare," now at BAM, of much admired British classical actor Simon Callow.
The show is engaging, delightful and -- at only one hour and forty-five minutes with intermission -- fleet. Credited to author Jonathan Bate, an Oxford college administrator and Shakespeare scholar, it’s a thinly-structured piece that serves to allow Callow to perform a variety of the bard’s most famous speeches (e.g. Antony’s funeral oration, Prospero’s valedictory address, both Romeo and Juliet’s roles in the balcony scene).
This is a treat.
For while Callow has never had a defining role by which American audiences have come to know him on film or TV, he has long been recognized as one of the greatest living Shakespeareans -- and, in this production, it’s easy to see why.
He has the rare mix of refinement, flexibility, intelligence and technique which makes a great Shakespeare actor, and he is a brilliant mimic able to play comic Welshman and Cockneys and then tragic heroes.
The subject of the show is Shakespeare’s life, and through the course of it we do get a sprinkle of facts about it. We find out, for instance, that Shakespeare was one of only three men in his town of Stratford in half a century to marry before reaching his majority age of 21, wedding his already expecting wife Anne Hathaway at 18.
We hear some of the details of his acting company’s stealthy midnight move from the old Puritan-owned theater (actually called The Theater) to the site of the future Globe. We hear about Shakespeare’s collaborations with talented comic playwright and poet John Fletcher at the end of his career.
This does not mean that all aspects of Shakespeare’s life are addressed. Cloaked, thus, is discussion of his uncertain sexuality. Hence, although at one point Callow mentions Shakespeare’s ties to the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, and the latter’s eventual imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth, when the actor reads the famed eighteenth sonnet ("Shall I compare thee to a summer day"), he does not make note that the "fair youth" whom Shakespeare loves is widely believed to have been the famously pretty Southampton.
Moreover, on the night I saw the show, Callow was occasionally unsteady at times, stammering here and there when he’d momentarily forgotten his lines and even slightly misquoting the "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" speech.
But this is quibbling. Callow is a titanically gifted actor speaking some of the most beautiful and poignant lines ever written with grace and power in a fun show that’s been adroitly staged by director Tom Cairns. The result is a special night of theater.
"Being Shakespeare" runs through April 14 at BAM, 30 Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn. For info or tickets call 718.636.4100 x1 or visit http://www.bam.org.