Greg Kramer as The Player. Photo: Barbara Gray.
The Player’s Advice To Shakespeare constitutes an anti-Establishment rant — Elizabethan style. Ottawa playwright Brian K. Stewart has a provocative agenda in taking real-life historical events — James I’s ruthless suppression of the peasantry during the latter’s 1607 revolt against encroachments on their liberty and economic survival — in order to mount an attack on none other than William Shakespeare. In this rousing script, which also seems to be asking us to seek contemporary parallels, the Bard is fingered as an acquiescent tool of the system, an Establishment lackey who failed to employ his formidable dramatic powers on behalf of justice for his society’s underprivileged and in support of revolutionary action.
The vessel for this outpouring of wrath — and yes, this is a one-man play — is a cranky and garrulous Tower of London prisoner known only as The Player. We meet this ragged rebel in his dungeon along with a table and bench, a plain wooden bowl, a flask containing some unspeakable beverage — and a carrot. The carrot becomes a particularly useful prop — even being employed for a bit of swordplay as The Player rambles on about the events and issues which led to his confinement and possible death. The primitive furniture is put to good use too — witness how, under John Koensgen’s nimble direction, that table suddenly becomes a lurching cart as The Player embarks on a journey to Leicester and into the reality of civil unrest.
Through the adventurous offices of actor Greg Kramer, this tattered vagabond serves as our witty, volatile, unsettling and unstable guide on a dark adventure. Indeed, Kramer’s arresting, multi-faceted portrayal of The Player is so compelling that anyone who cares about good theatre should make a beeline for Arts Court before the run ends.
The Player, of course, is the script’s dramatic lynchpin — and in Kramer’s marvellous performance he functions as our crafty but sometimes suspect confidante on matters social, political and personal. Through Kramer, we also get to meet other characters in this world — and even though they may mainly seem symbols and types, they still convey the rough fibre of reality. But ultimately, it is The Player who counts. He may seem crazy as a fox at times, he may be a seething mass of resentment, his own determination to occupy centre stage may border on the pathological, but he does provide 90 minutes of exhilarating company.
As a playwright, Brian Stewart has a way with imagery, and as an actor Kramer makes the most of it. Consider, for example the delicious moment when he drolly but contemptuously likens a conversation with Will Shakespeare to an encounter with a “well-polished plate.”
Shakespeare emerges as the villain here: within the somewhat dubious context of this script, he is guilty of courting the favour of his monarch and the ruling order of the day rather than of employing his dramatic powers to speak out on behalf of the poor and underprivileged. The fact that he has recently written a new play, Coriolanus, dealing with ancient times, rather than applying his creative gifts to current domestic unrest, makes him culpable in the eyes of the outraged Player.
Given the rich sinewy language of the play, coupled with Kramer’s formidable performance, it’s easy to ignore the underlying polemic here, as well its occasional naivety. To be sure, Shakespeare is fair game when it comes to kow-towing to the established order — as, for example, fashionable court painter Sir Joshua Reynolds was when William Blake attacked him for the same thing in a later century. So when The Player entertainingly fulminates against his nemesis for being deferential — and, by implication, cowardly — towards the System. It’s easy to nod your head and applaud. Yet, in fairness, there remains a broader canvas in which Shakespeare and his attitudes can better be understood. He was a product of a particular culture, what historian E.M.W. Tillyard once called the “Elizabethan world picture” and he was genuine in his fear and abhorrence of a universe rent asunder by disorder. The need for order recurs again and again in the great plays — Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Richard lll. Julius Caesar The Tempest — and even in the comedies. And he WAS concerned always about the misuse of power in high places. True, he protected his own position from potentially fatal regal wrath by expressing these concerns within the safer and less immediate contexts of history and mythology, and no doubt he — like his literary contemporaries — was further compromised by being so dependent on patronage in high places. But we must enter Shakespeare’s mind set to appreciate that his horror of a moral universe in chaos was real. Such horror would extend to civil and class conflict, not to mention mob action — and ironically these are themes explosively examined in Coriolanus, the tragedy which triggers The Player’s misplaced scorn in this play.
One can therefore argue that Brian Stewart has sought to impose on his script a contemporary sensibility which cannot be sustained. Yet there is no denying the moral passion of his piece and the impact of Kramer’s performance. The argument may be suspect, but The Player’s Advice To Shakespeare still conveys the taste and texture of a particular time. And for that, it is to be valued.