Last Wednesday I saw Upstart Crow at the Gielgud theatre in London. It is an adaptation of the tv sitcom of the same name. Inspired by the critique by Robert Green in his pamphlet ‘Groatsworth of Wit’, The play as with the series was written by Ben Elton and so it very much had the same tone as the series if not a little more political and more energetic in the play version. The play is packed with references to William Shakespeare’s plays* however you don’t need to be a Shakespeare fanatic to enjoy the play. There are many Shakespeare ‘inside jokes’ so some knowledge might heighten your experience but mainly the comedy is aimed at ridiculing general views of Shakespeare and of the politics in Shakespeare’s time and of ours. So if you are a huge fan of Shakespeare and his plays I would urge you to check it out as it looks at some real events of his life and suggests ways in which these events may have inspired his plays.
Ben Elton also wrote the 2018 film All is True starring (Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench and Ian Mckellan) which is based on the final years of Shakespeare life. The film has a much darker, sadder tone to the series and to this play which is much more lighthearted but this interrogation of Shakespeare’s life and the way his life events influenced him really seeps into the play in a way that I don’t think that the series does quite as often. Set after the death of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet, the play still focuses a little on the impact this tragic life event had on him and his writing.
The play was performed by the original cast of the BBC television series featuring David Mitchell in the role of William Shakespeare who completely embodies the bard with his high forehead and indulging in all of the stereotypes and assumptions of the playwright. Gemma Whelan was also incredible in her role as Kate, bringing awareness to the harsh reality of the position that women had in the Elizabethan/ Jacobean era with comic flare. She acts as Shakespeare’s confidante and as the source of Shakespeare’s genius, almost adhering to the saying that ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ which adds to the plays political underbelly.
If you are a fan of the series and expect to see Ann Shakespeare though you may be disappointed as she doesn’t make an appearance as with the series – Elton has chosen to write her as avoiding Will Shakespeare because of the poems. Other than that though, the play really is mostly a longer (100 minutes) version of an episode in the series which means that Elton has been able to explore in more depth more of Shakespeare’s plays and the influences for it. The play is written so that audience members of any age should be able to enjoy it or at least find certain moments comical.
Directed by Sean Foley, the staging also sets out to ridicule the limitations of realism on stage choosing to use a similar set up to the set design of the series. But because there are no cuts or edits that can be made with a play Foley uses the staging to add an extra comic element almost similar, although much more subtle, to that of The Play that goes Wrong.
“Theatre goers can look forward to a comedy steeped in authentic shakespearean ambience in every way apart from the smell”David Mitchell, UpstartCrowComedy.com
One question many people have asked me is if you can enjoy it without liking Shakespeare that much and I would say that as David Mitchell has said that it very Shakespearean and it is about his life and his work. However, many of the jokes come from general fairly well known assumptions about Shakespeare so I do think it would still be enjoyable if you are not Shakespeare’s number one fan.
Overall it was a really enjoyable night at the theatre, producing many genuine belly laughs from the audience. But it’s not only funny, Elton really pushes to expose some issues in our society and to make you think about representation in the entertainment industry by making us look at the past, the play makes us look at our present. The play is only on for a short run ending on the 25th of April 2020 at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End.
*Mainly Othello, Twelfth night and King Lear with a little bit of Hamlet and reference to the histories.