Actor Patrick Page hasn't taken the easy route to "Swansong," his first full-length play. Instead, he's hurled himself into the lives of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, to tell "a tale of what <I>could </I>have happened between these two extraordinary figures, but almost certainly didn't."
Actor Patrick Page, currently playing Scar in the first national company of “The Lion King,” hasn’t taken the easy route to “Swansong,” his first full-length play. Instead, he’s hurled himself into the lives of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, to tell “a tale of what could have happened between these two extraordinary figures, but almost certainly didn’t.” The result, as fervently acted and directed at the White Barn Theater, is a piece of fiction that bespeaks a lively imagination and Page’s Shakespearean experience, but also suffers from a sameness of temperature (Jonson is almost always bitterly angry, Shakespeare mostly placatory, and both too often drunk), teeters on pretentiousness and exists in a hermetically sealed world inhabited only by Ben and Will (the play is really a two-character piece, its third role being almost incidental). Yet, as was true of Arlette Ricci’s “The Astronaut” earlier this summer, this well-produced “Swansong,” the season finale, is exactly the sort of play the Westport theater should be trying out.
The play brings to mind Tom Stoppard. In his “The Invention of Love,” he wrote persuasively of A.E. Housman, revealing much of his character through the teeming academic milieu in which the poet lived. Such illuminating atmosphere is missing from “Swansong,” and because of all the information Page crams into his dialogue, his play seems much more academic than Stoppard’s.
The production opens with a female voice singing a madrigal, then thunder and the lighting of a candle that reveals Ben (Sam Tsoutsouvas) attempting to write. A disembodied voice quotes from “Hamlet,” presumably the voice of Shakespeare, who has been dead for seven years (it’s now 1623). John Heminges (Timothy Jerome) knocks on Ben’s door. He’s from the acting company the King’s Men, and he’s one of the men who plan to edit the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. He urgently needs an introductory ode to Shakespeare from poet laureate Ben.
Flash back to 1592 and the entrance of Will (Jack Wetherall), singing, drinking and staggering. Ben, quick to anger, once convicted of murder and rumored to have killed Will, plays a spin-the-bottle game with him, the object being to reveal their loves and hates. Will’s great love is his young son Hamnet, later to die of the plague.
Lines and scenes from Shakespeare’s plays are incorporated, and we see Will pacing backstage on the opening night of “Hamlet.” Also, Will helps Ben write a love poem to his Celia, the only time Ben has written fluently (it’s “Drink to me only with thine eyes”). Trouble is, “Celia” is Alice, with whom Will has been having an affair. All of this is revealed through much talk and little action. Throughout, Will, who appeared in several of Ben’s plays, is written and played more as an actor than a playwright.
The two men believe, against Ben’s dour judgment, that they are friends, even though Ben is deeply jealous of Will’s success and highly critical of his plays. But they have a falling-out. Years go by, and Ben visits Will to present him with a copy of the folio of his own plays. Will takes this as the final insult, purposely tumbles into the river and dies in Ben’s arms. Flash forward to 1623 again, with Ben finally writing his ode to Shakespeare published in the First Folio that begins with the words, “To the memory of my beloved, the author, Master William Shakespeare.”
“Swansong” reveals Page as a great (admitted) fantasizer with an ability to write often lively dialogue, although he doesn’t entirely convince us his Ben/Will love story is viable.
Since Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson weren’t available, Page was lucky to have the bravura services of Tsoutsouvas and Wetherall to help bring his play to an audience (Jerome is also just fine). And helmer Burry Fredrik has staged it with skilled restraint shot through with moments of high theatricality. Leo B. Meyer’s handsome basic setting of a wooden ramp and platform readily covers Ben’s studio, the banks of the Thames, the Mermaid Tavern, the Globe Theater and Stratford-upon-Avon. The White Barn has served “Swansong” well, very much to the benefit of playwright Page.