There has to be something not quite right when you are watching a three hander with William Shakespeare as one of the characters and he is the least interesting person on stage. For All Time is set at the end of his career. He is portrayed as tired, dissolute and disillusioned, no longer able to access his creativity or even remember the names of some of his plays ( “the snake play”). During the course of his writing session on The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher we are given a quick trot through the basics of his life, his father’s financial ruin, his distant relationship with his wife, his dual life in Stratford and London, his success, the rumours that Marlowe was still alive and writing his plays for him and the loss of his son Hamnet. We also meet his mistress Margaret, a wench with a heart of gold, who is keeping the fact that she is pregnant with his child secret and see him admitting to Fletcher that he is going blind. The dialogue is by no means Elizabethan, Marlowe is described as gay for example, and in spite of some of the nice touches in the set and costumes I never quite managed to believe that I was watching a little piece of Elizabethan England, or seeing the man who wrote the plays in front of me. Three days ago I saw Peter MacQueen give an excellent performance so I am going to come off the fence and blame the writing. It simply isn’t good enough. What it needs is certainty of tone. You are either steeped in Elizabethan England or you are not.
The play is saved from disaster by a charming and cleverly judged performance from Dennis Herdman as John Fletcher. He is an overtly stylish gay man who somehow manages to be a very recognisable and modern figure as well as one who belongs in the world of the play and his acting has bravura and sensitivity. This is exactly what the writing doesn’t manage to do for the character of Shakespeare. We know that he has lost his creativity now, but it is important to believe that it was once there, and I never quite did. It was good to see John Fletcher and Shakespeare’s mistress Margaret together in the second half when they play with his latest toy- a telescope- and have a tender scene together as two people who both loved Shakespeare and knew that they were not loved in return. Margaret is a touching character and very well played by Aimee Thomas, who finds more in her than the stereotypical tart with a heart barmaid.
The set and the lighting are lovely. There is not a false note in that side of the production at least, everything is very well judged and used effectively.
In the programme the writer, a first time playwright called Rick Thomas, asks us to forgive him for making some of it up, given that virtually nothing is known about Shakespeare. Given that he set himself a very difficult task, I do……… but only just.