Swordplay shines in Shakespeare’s Rebel

Photo courtesy of David Blue.

In 2013, Bard on the Beach held its first ever book launch event for Shakespeare’s Rebel, by Christopher Gaze’s longtime friend C.C. Humphreys. Now, this world premiere adaptation of the novel brings to life the raucous, exciting world Shakespeare lived in while presenting the compelling story of his fight choreographer, John Lawley.

It’s London in 1599, and the city is preparing for a possible revolution. The threat of a rebellion in Ireland prompts Queen Elizabeth (Colleen Wheeler) to enlist her dear Robbie Devereux (John Murphy), Earl of Essex, to go and suppress the rebels. Wheeler spectacularly commands Essex and her secretary, Sir Robert Cecil (Robert Klein). Cecil, in turn, attempts to assert his influence on the queen and always “happens to be passing by” when she summons him (he is clearly eavesdropping). Some of my favourite moments were her spearing Cecil with insults before telling him to get out.

While this is a play about Shakespeare and his theatre company, the true protagonist is John Lawley (Benedict Campbell). Essex asks his old friend Lawley to join him in Ireland, but after giving up swordplay, all Lawley wants is to get back together with Tess (Jennifer Lines) and spend time with his son, Ned (Chirag Naik) who is a player in Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

The conflict comes when Tess is engaged to the impish Sir Samuel D’Esparr (David Marr), whom Lawley refers to as “despair.” Amidst avoiding the battlefield, fending off Essex, pleasing the Queen, and trying to stay alive, Lawley tries to win Tess back. Campbell performs this important role with the swashbuckling style his character is known for, and did one hell of a job (though I think his performance as King Lear on the main stage finds him at the top of his game).

Lawley’s old friend Will Shakespeare (Anousha Alamian) is struggling to finish writing Hamlet, while the Queen asks Lawley to convince him that the country needs a patriotic play. Some of my favourite lines are about Hamlet, such as when Lawley says, “If it lasts a week they’ll be lucky.”

The only thing I would have preferred more of in this play is the Bard himself. He wasn’t on stage very much, and when he was, I didn’t get the same sense of his character as when Bob Frazer played him in Equivocation.

While I may have quibbles with some of the casting, this play shines most in its plot development. Never did the action drag on, and that is due to Humphrey’s ability to successfully translate his novel to the stage. He also skillfully incorporates the language of the time in a way that is not contrived or obvious. And, importantly, there are some wonderful lines that stick with you, such as, “I hate the theatre. It encourages base appetites in men and ungodly desires in women. Worse, it encourages people to think for themselves.”

Shakespeare’s Rebel is presented by Bard on the Beach from July 2 to September 19 on the Howard Family Stage, in the Douglas Campbell Theatre. For more information, visit bardonthebeach.org.