Shakespeare Unbound, actor Colin David Reese’s attempt to imaginatively channel the thoughts and recollections of John Heminges, who along with Henry Condell published the First Folio in 1623, provides real insights into the great man, his plays, his times and the laborious process of bringing the Shakespearean canon to print. In so doing, Heminges and Condell ensured that the work of the world’s premier writer survived into a unique posterity, when so many of the plays of their era did not. To be sure, Reese’s Heminges, armed with the knowledge of that posterity thanks to the play’s neat flash-forward structure, is rather proud of his efforts, boastful even, but we forgive him this in light of the first-hand information (if you are prepared to suspend disbelief) he provides about his and our beloved Bard.
Heminges, who like Condell was one of Shakespeare’s acting colleagues, drops easily into soliloquies from the plays, which act as breaks between the roughly chronological reminiscences. The CGI settings for these are simple and unobtrusively excellent, and likewise provide a contrast to the more static mise en scene of Heminges’ monologue of memories. One of the most moving of these is the recitation of Constance’s speech from King John lamenting the death of a son, after Heminges describes Shakespeare’s grief at the loss of his boy Hamnet at the age of 11.
Reese has obviously conducted considerable research in order to fashion such a convincing faux-memoir. While naturally the bulk of the play’s confidences are imagined by Reese as Heminges, the work is studded with piquant asides based on facts or firm suppositions, such as young Will’s schoolboy fascination with Holinshead and how fruitful that obsession would be. He makes the point that Will wanted to tell the stories of English history, but not, as had hitherto been the case, as pageants. He wanted to create characters who were real people, not representations or symbols. His later interest in Montaigne likewise is adduced as a major influence on the more complex psychological concerns of the final great works.
Reese makes clear too how contingent and tenuous were the written versions of the plays given how Will wrote speeches for the players on ‘cue scripts’ which were rarely kept, which, when coupled with the fact that the company’s scribe had a penchant for making his own amendments, makes the quality of what ended up surviving almost miraculous. Such factual observations sit alongside more speculative scenarios, such as young Will’s membership of the Queen’s Men at a time when the great comic Richard Tarlton was involved, for which there is no firm evidence.
Quite true however, at least according to the diary of a contemporary, is the droll tale of Shakespeare pretending to be the great actor Richard Burbage in order to secure the favours of one of his female fans and informing Burbage when he arrived later that ‘William the Conqueror came before Richard the Third’.
The inclusion of such tasty morsels of truth help with the digestion of Reese’s necessary imaginings of the life and personality of Heminges, and through him, of Shakespeare and his milieu. The minutiae of the arduous progress of the Folio’s publication which concludes the piece also acts to ground Reese’s conception of Heminges, an important man and a proud man who, along with his colleague Condell, has much to be proud of.