With all of its political intrigue, swordplay, and requisite love story, Shakespeare’s Rebel lacks a necessary focus.
Based on the book of the same name and adapted to the stage by its author C.C. Humphrey’s, Shakespeare’s Rebel centers on John Lawley, the actor and former fight choreographer at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. He also just happens to be friend and master swordsman to the duplicitous Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, who is planning to overthrow the government under the rule of Elizabeth I. Caught between his duty to his friend and that of his Queen, Lawley plays both sides as he attempts to extract himself from the politics of the day, and away from the watchful eye of the Queen’s henchman, Sir Robert Cecil.
With its multiple storylines, which also includes a romantic entanglement between Lawley and the mother of his son, there is little for an audience to hold onto as the main driver of Humphrey’s story. Despite the potential stakes involved with its deadly politics, Shakespeare’s Rebel becomes watered down by too many distractions, resulting in a lack of urgency and focus that fails to both put us on edge, or draw us into Lawley’s motivations. While it all may make for an epic novel where backstory and character can be explored at a deeper level, the diverse threads skip along somewhat superficially, and fail to fully coalesce on stage. After watching Shakespeare’s Rebel, it becomes clear why it took Peter Jackson three films to tell his Hobbit story.
Despite its muddy waters, director Christopher Gaze keeps the action moving swiftly through its many plot points, and there are some really nice performances. Benedict Campbell manages to make Lawley likeable and sympathetic despite his many shortcomings, and Colleen Wheeler once again takes on the role of Queen Elizabeth I, bringing some of the biggest emotional hits of the night. John Murphy is suitably enigmatic as the melancholy Devereaux, and Robert Klein makes the most of his sinister Cecil.
Like its plot, there is little focus to Marshall McMahen’s set, where the action is either cramped on the small thrust stage, or lost in the bulk of the remainder of the performance space. Christine Reimer’s mostly mono-chromatic costume palette highlights the underlying darkness, especially on the men. For a play about a swordsman you would expect the fight scenes to be compelling, and fight direct Nicholas Harrison largely delivers with a number of dynamic moments of action.
While Shakespeare’s Rebel may not be as strong as some of the non-Shakespeare written plays that have been produced at Bard on the Beach in recent years, it is this company of actors that has the season locked. Paired with the powerful King Lear, despite its lack of focus, Shakespeare’s Rebel is decidedly more entertaining than either of this year’s comedies.
Shakespeare’s Rebel by C.C. Humphreys, based on his novel. Directed by Christopher Gaze. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production on stage at the Howard Family Stage in Vanier Park until September 19. Visit https://bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.