It was always a puzzler for historians and Shakespeare enthusiasts.
In his last will and testament, Stratford Upon Avon’s legendary Bard bequeathed his wife Anne Hathaway his “second best bed.”
Was it a deliberate slight, as many have concluded? Might it have been a perfectly reasonable legacy from her husband, within a context now lost to time?
The speculation continues in Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen’s fascinating Shakespeare’s Will – presented by White Rock-based Peninsula Productions (Sorry Wrong Number, The Stranger, True West) as a staged reading on Friday, Nov. 18 (7 p.m.), Saturday, Nov. 19 (2 p.m.) and Sunday, Nov. 20 (2 p.m.) at the company’s studio theatre in Centennial Park (14600 North Bluff Rd.)
The one-woman monodrama is directed by author/director Simon Johnston, and stars Mahara Sinclaire as Anne, with evocative incidental music provided by fiddler Hugh Ellenwood (who also happens to be White Rock Museum’s resident archivist).
Thiessen has pegged his play on a few inarguable facts – that, for instance, the couple lived separate lives; he reveling at the centre of London-based renown as an actor and playwright, while her focus, presumably, was on domesticity, raising their three children in relatively rural Stratford.
From this premise – and what is known about the lives and aspirations of Elizabethan women – Thiessen conjures a flesh-and-blood figure out of the few shadowy details, speculates on the unorthodox nature of her relationship with Shakespeare (1564-1616), and ultimately gives vibrant voice to one of history’s quietest characters.
On the day of his funeral, Anne unexpectedly receives his will, and the event precipitates a cascade of memories – as well as angry realizations that she must come to terms with in her own way – in a text that has been praised for being at once witty, and richly poetic.
Johnston, a White Rock resident, is also former artistic and executive director of Richmond’s Gateway Theatre.
He has been aware of the play for well over a decade, as he is a friend of Thiessen and has presented several of his plays at Gateway, he said.
“Shakespeare’s Will was also done at Gateway, but was directed by somebody else,” he recalled.
“As soon as I saw it I thought I must get my hands on it,” he added.
“When Peninsula suggested I direct it, some 10 years later, I said ‘are you kidding?’ I leapt at it.”
What also drew him to the play was Thiessen’s use of language, he said.
“Not many writers are able to write a play in blank verse, similar to the way Shakespeare wrote,” he added.
“It’s been a pleasure to work out what the poetry means and how to get that across on stage – and it’s also a thrill to work with the absolutely irrepressible Mahara Sinclaire – she’s a ball of intuitional energy, and she understands this from a very, very deep place.”
Anne is a gift role for the busy Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland-based actor – and fellow playwright – Sinclaire, he said.
Well known to the Peninsula Productions’ audience ever since her debut with the company in The Game’s Afoot by Ken Ludwig, directed by Peninsula founder Wendy Bollard, Sinclaire and Johnston participated (she as actor, he as director) in Peninsula’s first staged reading presentation, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She has since appeared in readings of Euripides’ Medea and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive.
Notable roles for her in full productions have included Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel, at Langley Little Theatre. Other favourites have been Nora in Escape from Happiness by George F. Walker, and as Helen Alving in Ibsen’s Ghosts.
Johnston said he was also aware of Ellenwood’s sideline as violinist before taking on Shakespeare’s Will.
“As soon as I re-read the script I knew I wanted to hear a violin – I thought it would lift the reading up by a notch,” he said – mindful that atmosphere is all-important in such a no-frills style of production.
“When Hugh read the script he got back to me right away and said ‘I’ve got these three songs in my head’,” I told him ‘great, you’re our guy!’ “
“He hopped on board with us, and I’m thrilled.”
It’s a busy time for Johnston, who in addition to rehearsing the play – and contributing live sound effects – is also looking forward to the launch of his new novel House of Daughters with the Earnshaw Books imprint on Dec. 6 (his previous novel, House of Wives, published by Penguin Random House, was a Globe and Mail bestseller).
Tickets are still available for the Friday and Saturday performances, but – given the limited seating at Peninsula’s intimate venue – tend to sell out very quickly.
To reserve, visit https://www.showpass.com/shakespeares-will-by-vern-thiessen/ or call 604-536-8335.