Chicago Theater Review: BEING SHAKESPEARE (Broadway Playhouse in Chicago)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: BEING SHAKESPEARE (Broadway Playhouse in Chicago)

by Tony Frankel on April 19, 2012

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


There’s simply no other way to encourage your attendance to Being Shakespeare than to submit my unequivocal good word. Those who fret at comprehending Shakespeare’s prose may be put off by the man’s name in the title. Don’t be. If you hear that this is a solo show, but you have become fatigued and apprehensive due to the oversupply of self-promoting, one-person shows, go anyway. If you have no idea who actor Simon Callow is, you will now.

Being Shakespeare is a new play by historian Jonathan Bate which is part educational discourse, part recital piece, and all entertainment, performed by the silver-tongued and dazzlingly eloquent Mr. Callow: film thespian, brilliant interpreter of Shakespeare, and author of note. Considering the body of work Shakespeare endowed to humanity, it is amazing what little is actually known of his life. To tell us the Bard’s life story from birth to death, Bate utilizes the “All the world’s a stage” monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. This highly inventive premise wisely eschews a fill-in-the-gap approach, deciding instead to center on the circumstances of Elizabethan England, surmising how the era may have influenced Shakespeare and his writings. Bate’s deductive script fascinatingly weaves historical records, such as church documents, with the most knowledgeable account of Shakespeare’s life: the plays, letters and sonnets of Shakespeare himself.

Thus, Callow leads us through Shakespeare’s life and times, using the famous speech (frequently referred to as the “The Seven Ages of Man”) as a guide. For example, the first age of man is the puking infant; we learn that mothers doted on their children in Elizabethan times, but would gladly pawn off an uncontrollable child, validated by a Shakespearean quote; we also know that Shakespeare’s younger sisters (and later his son) died of the Plague, but that may have fed the way Shakespeare so perfectly encapsulated a mother’s mourning in the “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” speech from King John.

On it goes through the rest of the stages wherein “one man in his time plays many parts,” including the whining schoolboy who studies Latin, the sighing lover who marries Anne Hathaway and the bearded soldier – a segment in which Bate probes what the Bard may have done in his twenties.

The Broadway Playhouse is a magnificently designed theater – every seat is good, but with a show this intimate, you are strongly encouraged to get seats closer to the stage.  Callow may be mighty, but the production is not. As designed by Tom Cairns (who also directs), the setting is by-and-large pedestrian: a few props, four chairs, a platform, and two small incongruous trees. Bruno Poet’s lighting design effectively demarcates Shakespeare’s dialogue from Bate’s historical anecdotes, but the lighting cues, along with some gimmicky music (sound and music by Ben and Max Ringham), are hardly necessary with Mr. Callow on board.

The playwright may be teaching us about all things Elizabethan, but Callow’s performance instructs us how to make Shakespeare’s language accessible through character choices and emotional authenticity. To highlight the seventh age of man (second childhood, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”), Bate integrates the Act IV, Scene VII speech from King Lear: “Pray, do not mock me…I fear I am not in my perfect mind…Do not laugh at me.” In less than one minute, Callow summoned Lear’s Alzheimer’s-ridden mind and mournful soul as he recognizes his long-lost daughter Cordelia – the short speech had more life and breathtaking truthfulness than most actors bring to an entire play. Callow is also astoundingly adroit when playing more than one character, especially evident in the scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream wherein Quince is casting “Pyramus and Thisby.”

Part of a short U.S. tour, Being Shakespeare lends credence to the theory that no one but Shakespeare could have written Shakespeare. As scholars debate whether or not the Shakespearean canon was written by one man, this compelling lecture, cleverly written as a play, should make any theatergoer a Shakespeare supporter. Although it’s a scholarly event, a spectator should attend Being Shakespeare as enthusiastically as a schoolboy leaving his books.

photos by André Penteado

Being Shakespeare
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at the Broadway Playhouse in Chicago
scheduled to end on April 29
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit or

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit


L Terry April 29, 2012 at 4:08 pm

I just saw the mesmerizing play and performance by Simon Callow. Is there somewhere that sites all the quotes used??

Tony Frankel April 30, 2012 at 12:23 pm

L Terry:
As far as I know, all of the quotes were sited in Mr. Bate’s play. The script, as far as I know, has not been published.

Comments on this entry are closed.