Liking Shakespeare

Shakespeare As You Like Him: Bury Festival, The Athenaeum, Bury St Edmunds

Ivan Howlett

Shakespeare As You Like Him: Bury Festival, The Athenaeum, Bury St Edmunds

Typical festival fare, this is a tour-de-force celebration, a non-stop solo miscellany of many of the best-known Shakespeare speeches.

The show's deviser/director, David Owen-Bell and the performer, Bruce Morrison have been working on this kind of monologue performance anthology since 1999. Among others, they've done programmes on Shakespeare and love, Shakespeare and politics, and Shakespeare and magic.

This programme presents Shakespeare by exploring the characters grouped into eight themes which include actors, kings, love, madness, guilt, youth through to old age and so on, quoting speeches from more than twenty plays and sonnets, switching from character to character, men and women and sometimes with conversations between two characters.

He works from the familiar props basket taking out weapons, hats, robes masks, a crown and whatever else he needs He hangs them on a coat stand whence he the takes them when he wishes to switch personas. He also has a Yorick skill and ancient leather bound copy of Shakespeare's plays.

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Bruce Morrison's delivery is polished elegant, fluent and passionate. He has a good singing voice and the songs are especially well done. The use of the sound effects and the lighting is effective. The audience, too, seemed to love the way he moved among them, anointing some, teasing others.

Morrison deserves praise for enabling us to hear every word he said. The Athenaeum is a wonderful building. I have known and loved it since I first set foot inside it in, I think, in 1950. However, it's acoustics, particularly for the unamplified spoken word, are dreadful. Bruce Morrison had taken the trouble to get the measure of its echoing vastness and I applaud him for that.

I'm not entirely at ease with the concept of the show. Much as one loved hearing the matchless words, one couldn't help feeling this was cabaret Shakespeare. The speeches from the plays exist in a dramatic context, not as sets of bon mots. Disembodied and butted end to end, however flowingly, gave us at times a surfeit of richness and in the search for variety, at times, edged the performer towards a virtuoso over-the-top mode. A bit Henry Irving, but an enjoyable evening's entertainment.

The one thing that annoyed me was nothing to do with Bruce Morrison. In my line of sight a member of the audience was recording parts of the show on an intrusive digital camera. Distracting, thoughtless and bang out of order, in my opinion.

Ivan Howlett