The Shadow Theatre production of When That I Was played earlier this month at the Varscona Theatre. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the various temptations of local theatre websites lately, so the first I heard of this one was on a LivingSocial discount ad. But it sounded interesting, so I bought a ticket with the LivingSocial voucher.
Like The Kite Runner, the program for When That I Was had lots to read ahead of time, with a page-long glossary of terms and definitions and a couple of pages of historical timeline. If you’re a Shakespeare fan, you might have recognised the title more readily than I did – it’s the first line from the song in Twelfth Night, “When that I was and a little tiny boy, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain”.
When That I Was was is a one man show (Christopher Hunt) about a character who has spent his life as an actor in Shakespeare’s company. It was written by John Mortimer and Edward Atienza, around 1981. It’s the same John Mortimer who wrote Rumpole of the Bailey. The show is mostly the character telling stories about Shakespeare, and acting bits of them out. He’s speaking from a perspective of being old and impoverished, hiding from the Puritans who had closed all the theatres, but when he’s telling a story from his youth his whole bearing and voice change so you can see him as a small boy, an ambitious young actor playing women’s roles, or an older man recounting events later in his life and in Shakespeare’s life.
As far as I know, the stories in the play are consistent with known canon. So the part about Hamnet was sad but not a surprise. I thought the treatment of Shakespeare’s relationship with Henry, the Earl of Southampton, was particularly deft, with the narrator explaining that he didn’t know for sure whether or not their love had been expressed physically but that he thought so himself. That left it open for the audience members to accept the possibility they preferred, and not to feel distracted by a story that didn’t fit the canon or their own previous ideas.
The narrator’s costume comprised various layers of ragged beige and brown garments, as well as hose which were in noticeably better shape. A more realistic creation might have included holes in the heels that were big enough to be visible above his slippers. He also must have had really impressive poacher’s pockets, since he kept pulling things out of a flimsy-looking worn jacket without ever losing anything or clinking anything. At one point I decided that the whole set was like a sort of Chekov’s mantelpiece, since it appeared to just be a mood-creating frame of dusty grey and beige abandoned space with the occasional red cloth, but I think that the character picked up and used almost every property during the play, mostly things that I hadn’t even noticed before he touched them.
The run of When That I Was is now over. The next Shadow Theatre production at the Varscona is Flight of the Viscount, a David Belke comedy which starts May 1st.