Nathan Schmidt, Robert Klein, Ian Butcher, Benedict Campbell

There was much ado surrounding the world premiere of C.C. Humphrey’s novel-turned-play, Shakespeare’s Rebel. The book, packed with political intrigue, plenty of sword fights, debauchery and of course, love, has received generally positive reviews prior to its adaptation as a play at this year’s Bard on the Beach. However, this grandiose story might be too ambitious to be crammed into 2.5 hours and there was much ado about too much

Ample credit should go to dramaturge Martin Kinch and to director Christopher Gaze. Thanks to their tremendous efforts, all the essential elements that make a signature Shakespearean tale have been plucked out and organized. 

Benedict Campbell, John Murphy
[Benedict Campbell, John Murphy]

Shakespeare’s comedies often feature multiple plots, struggles to reunite with a loved one, disputes among characters, deception or ruses and happy endings while tragedies involve the fall of a high status character and usually more than one dead body. Due to these elements being satisfied in overwhelming quantities, I found it hard to concentrate and any affinity with the central character, John Lawley, was watered down. 
Shakespeare’s Rebel is an adventure, interwoven with a bit of history and romance, told from the unique perspective of Shakespeare’s fight choreographer at the Globe Theatre, John Lawley (Benedict Campbell). 

Lawley is a reliable friend to Shakespeare and a trusted retainer to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (John Murphy). Through Essex, he becomes an ambassador to Queen Elizabeth (Colleen Wheeler) and the unwitting pawn of the queen’s secretary, Sir Robert Cecil (Robert Klein). 

Lawley’s role seems artificial and inflated as he finds himself a sort of Superman – the only person capable of saving England from annihilation. On his to-do list: help Shakespeare complete the dreaded Hamlet play, advise Essex on how to conduct war in Ireland, serve Elizabeth by preventing Essex from becoming a traitor, thwart Cecil’s plans to doom Essex and seize power.

Benedict Campbell, Jennifer Lines
[Benedict Campbell, Jennifer Lines]

As if those tasks weren’t enough, he must also spend more quality time with his son, Ned (Chirag Naik), less time boozing in taverns, and find a way to reconcile with the love of his life, Tess (Jennifer Lines). Although the events that lead to the rebellion of Essex against Queen Elizabeth comprise two years, all the action surrounding Lawley are compressed into 2.5 hours. Small wonder the audience was exhausted. 
Unfortunately, there was little time to develop any rapport with the characters. Although Benedict Campbell did a valiant job of creating empathy for Lawley, the character came off more as an opportunistic schemer than a selfless hero, seemingly willing to bargain with anyone to get his life back on track. 

John Murphy plays a superbly sulky Earl of Essex, easily shifting through all of his character’s confusing moods, from trumping around like a flamboyant adventurer to babbling like a nitwit.

Colleen Wheeler, Benedict Campbell
[Colleen Wheeler, Benedict Campbell]

Colleen Wheeler again slips into her role as Queen Elizabeth like a well-worn glove. Commanding and regal in all her scenes, she intentionally allows hairline cracks into her imperial shell so the audience can glimpse the tender heart of the woman beneath. 

After the beheading of her lover, Elizabeth’s grief is palpable. Robert Klein is fitfully fiendish to watch and makes a truly diabolical Cecil. Although handicapped by the two-dimensional limitations of his character, Klein makes the most of each slinking gesture, each brooding smile and every remark dripping with malice.   
Marshall McMahen’s unremarkable stage is empty and drab by necessity. The anchoring backdrop has to serve double duty as a Chicago nightclub for counterpart Bard show Love’s Labour’s Lost on the same stage. As a consequence, the setting lacks authentic architectural elements but is functional enough to portray the rapidly-changing locales. 

Michael Blake, Anousha Alamian
[Michael Blake, Anousha Alamian]

A generous space is also needed in order to fully appreciate Nicholas Harrison’s skillfully coordinated fight scenes. Adrian Muir’s precise lighting choices and Murray Price’s dramatic music samples supplement the sparse furnishings and somber ambiance.
I’ve not read Humphrey’s novel thus am not certain if Gaze overworked any of the comedic or tragic material for dramatic effect. Essex’s diarrhea scene was funny, in the absurd sense rather than in the amusing one. Sarah’s mercy-killing was so predictable, it was tragic. However, in comparison with some of Shakespeare’s own works, Bard’s plays could be considered equally pedantic and illogical.

Robert Klein, Colleen Wheeler, John Murphy
[Robert Klein, Colleen Wheeler, John Murphy]       

Over the years, Bard on the Beach has served up Shakespeare in unique and engaging ways by experimenting with different time periods and theatrical styles, even branching out by offering non-Shakespearean productions to attract a wider audience. 

Past successes such as Shylock, Elizabeth Rex, and last year’s stunning Equivocation have shown that these gambles pay off. With more regimented trimming, Shakespeare’s Rebel can live up to its potential as a rollicking adventure. 

Shakespeare’s Rebel continues at the Howard Family Stage through September 19

Photos by David Blue.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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