mon 20/05/2024

What You Will, Apollo Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

What You Will, Apollo Theatre

What You Will, Apollo Theatre

A one-man Shakespeare show offers comedy and history but mercifully little tragedy

A hollow crown: Roger Rees brushes up his ShakespeareDavid Jensen

As long as Simon Callow is around, London’s theatre scene will never be short of one-man shows, nor of Shakespeare. A new pretender to the Shakespearian throne, a rival for the hollow crown (and, just occasionally, the hollow laugh) has however emerged in the form of Roger Rees’s What You Will – a brisk hour-and-a-half’s trot through Shakespeare’s greatest hits, with a little autobiography and a lot of accents thrown in.

A veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rees can spin an anecdote with style, has plenty to tell, and the elegant shamelessness to steal them when they are not his own. Here he weaves the best (and just a couple of duds) into a Shakespearian variety show that takes us from his own beginnings as a “silent, non-speaking huntsman” in The Taming of the Shrew, a role he subsequently reprised in most of the Bard’s plays, to playing Hamlet for the RSC. We pause along the way for soliloquies, Shakespeare howlers, and a (blessedly) brief “musical interlude”.

Rees is an engaging guide – personable and relentlessly self-deprecating

Although Rees is alone on stage among the predictable theatrical detritus of thrones, crowns and flags, his show boasts a dream cast, crossing centuries to include David Garrick, Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench and Charles Laughton. Even Noël Coward makes a cameo appearance in the unlikely company of Vivien Leigh and Titus Andronicus. Rees is an engaging guide – personable and relentlessly self-deprecating – and although the show (briefly seen at Stratford and in America in 2010) still needs to settle in a bit, it has the right balance of humour and history.

Surely the only thing harder than delivering Shakespeare’s most famous speeches in context is delivering them out of it. There is no segue into “To be, or not to be” or “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” that can help smooth an actor’s way, but Rees mostly gets round the problem through sheer gumption and speed, whisking from anecdote to extract to extempore without pause. There’s a lot of the schoolboy still about the 68-year-old actor, and this comes out in a beautifully impetuous turn as Romeo, swiftly undercut (lest we suspect Rees of taking himself too seriously) by a toothy Nurse. Outings as Richard II and Macbeth fare less well, but mostly owing to the chafing between text and West End, good-time atmosphere.

Rees has done his homework, and though some of it is a little undigested, he offers his audience the best Shakespearean morsels from Voltaire, DH Lawrence (neither of them exactly enthusiastic) and Dickens among others. An extended scene from Great Expectations sees both Dickens and Rees at their best, rendering the painful episode in which amateur actor Mr Wopsle showcases his Hamlet to the world. And courtesy of James Thurber comes another excellent sketch that proposes a radical, revisionist reading of Macbeth as a murder mystery.

For any Londoners who missed Rees’s 2010 outing in Waiting for Godot opposite Sir Ian McKellen, this may be the first opportunity in a long while to watch this likeable, vital actor in anything more substantial than The West Wing or Grey’s Anatomy. It’s a chance worth taking. This may not be the didactic equal of Callow’s The Man From Stratford, but it’s a lot more fun and a good deal shorter – surely both virtues of which Shakespeare himself would have approved.

  • What You Will at the Apollo Theatre until 6 October
Even Noël Coward makes a cameo appearance in the unlikely company of Vivien Leigh and Titus Andronicus


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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