“My spirits hang as heavy as the testicles on an old horse” is not a line we might attribute to Shakespeare. Yet this striking line is exactly the sort of dialogue that playwright Robert Brustein has imagined for an aging Bard, whom he depicts in his latest play, “The Last Will.” Suffolk University and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company debuted the play on Wednesday at the Modern Theatre, where it will play until Feb. 24.
It takes a certain sort of writerly confidence for a playwright to put words in the mouth of Shakespeare, but Brustein, who is the distinguished scholar in residence at Suffolk, has done it twice before; “The Last Will” is the final installment in a trilogy that depicts Shakespeare in different stages of his life.
Dark, self-aware, and ultimately sanguine, “The Last Will” presents a more complicated portrait of the man behind the name. Shakespeare (Allyn Burrows) returns to his wife of over two decades, Anne Hathaway (Brooke Adams), on the heels of a great loss: the famous Globe Theatre, where his works were staged, has just burned down. With rapidly faltering health and lucidity, the writer intends to make amends.
No one is above reproach in Brustein’s depiction of Stratford-upon-Avon; Shakespeare’s daughters (Stacy Fischer and Merritt Janson) squabble for his affection and inheritance like the characters Goneril and Regan in “King Lear.” Fearing unfaithfulness, Shakespeare makes plans to change his last will in order to disinherit his wife. Indeed, the play is rife with riffs on the word “will”; it is used first as the main character’s name, then to mean a legal document and as a term describing his burning writerly passion. “I’ve lost the will to write,” Will laments. The world’s most famous playwright is here shown taken down to a humble size by self-doubt, writer’s block, paranoia, and perhaps syphilis; Brustein’s Shakespeare is not your AP English class’s portrait of the writer.
Brustein and director Steven Maler naturally weave comparisons between Shakespeare’s family and the characters he created in his many plays. As Shakespeare hurtles towards the final stages of a fatal illness, he begins to conflate characters from his plays with the real people in his life. “I feel you mock me, Gertrude,” he says to his wife, confusing her with Hamlet’s mother.
Shakespeare’s works are not only alluded to; they are directly quoted in the performance, often by characters who mock Will by throwing his own well-known lines back at him. Upon being accused of adultery by her truant husband, Anne tosses back a reconstruction of the classic Hamlet line “frailty thy name is woman”: “Appetite thy name is man,” she challenges. The language is modern but formal, starched.
Much of the success of the play comes from the mature and carefully controlled acting of Adams and Burrows. Adams, as Anne, provides the sass and wit that challenges Shakespeare’s 17th-century representation of frail and unfaithful women. Brustein’s Anne is a sassy verbal sparring partner for Shakespeare’s rough patriarch.
The stark, minimalist set design by Eric Levenson—consisting principally of a couple of curtains and some beer stains and pub accessories—is in direct contrast with costume designer Nancy Leary’s ornate, Elizabethan-era clothing. The theater at Suffolk University is notably small in scale and intimate in design, with audience members within arm’s reach of the cast. The combined effect is one of making a great man more human-sized.
Yet for all its attempts to present Shakespeare the man over Shakespeare the myth, the play does not stray far from a wide-eyed admiration of him—in repeating his more famous lines, other characters remind the audience of the long-lasting success of Will’s plays. Modern viewers also might take issue with the historical accuracy of the play’s depictions or the unrealistic enthusiasm Shakespeare has for fixing his family.
While works of art surrounding Shakespeare can at times stand on their own as pieces of art, “The Last Will” suggests that they remain testaments to the creative powers of a literary great. In the final line of the show, Brustein writes, “His legacy he bequeathed to us all…whose benefactors are as numerous as the stars.” It seems that at least in the realm of theater, the works of Shakespeare are a gift that keeps giving.
—Staff writer Ola Topczewska can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.