Shakespeare’s First Folio, a collection of 36 of his much-loved plays, was first published 400 years ago. This European premiere tells the story of how a small group of the King’s Men decided to undertake the enormous task of protecting Shakespeare’s legacy, in a poignant yet uproariously witty production of Lauren Gunderson’s award-winning play. 

The story itself is relatively simple; William Shakespeare is dead and troupes all over the country are ripping off his plays to cash in on his success without much respect for the original texts. Outraged, his surviving players (the King’s Men) set to work producing a book of his plays as they were written and performed at The Globe. The audience already knows that the plan eventually comes to success, so a happy ending is somewhat assured, and any hurdles in the King’s Men’s way seem to be quickly solved offstage or with brief sweet-talking. While there are some antagonistic characters present, really the main villain of the piece is time; with three character deaths emphasising the race to immortalise Shakespeare’s words before they are lost forever. The ending triumph of presenting the finished folio to Anne Hathaway is beautifully done as they begin to act out The Tempest, which then takes us on a journey through time as Shakespeare’s works are adapted in different eras, translated into different languages, and presented to new audiences up to the present day. 

The skilled cast of ten each gives brilliant performances, with many taking on multiple distinctive characters, all with masterful comic timing, making it hard to single out a performer that stood above the rest. Bill Ward as Henry Condell is the driving force of the play, determined and confident with excellent stage presence and wit. Russell Richardson tugs on the heartstrings as John Heminges, particularly with an emotional monologue on loss in Act 2 that had many in the audience quietly weeping. A particular highlight is Richard Burbage’s (Zach Lee) “medley” of monologues from roles he played under Shakespeare, which is exceptionally well-delivered and more than earns its own applause. 

Performing in the round is a task not often attempted, and even less often done well, but director Lotte Wakeham has done an exceptional job of ensuring that you’re never staring at the back of someone’s head for too long while ensuring movements around the space feel natural rather than observing any whirling dervishes. The set is kept minimal to ensure sight lines are always clear, and the transformations between locations are cleverly executed. The more choreographed moments could perhaps use some tightening on timing, but the montage effects come across well. The magic of the printing press was particularly wonderful to watch! 

This is a funny, uplifting, and relevant play that is certainly a must-see for fans of The Bard (especially if you enjoy Pericles!) For those less well-versed in Shakespeare’s works there may be jokes and references that are lost, but there is certainly still plenty of merit here to entertain and inspire.  

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Book of Will continues its run at The Octagon until the 3rd of June and will transfer to the Shakespeare North Playhouse in Merseyside from the 19th of October to the 11th of November 2023.  

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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