Ever since an afternoon in 1979 when he performed all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets from the stage of the Olivier Theater in London, Simon Callow has taken an almost obsessive interest in these poetical works from the Bard of Avon. Now, in “There Reigns Love,” he has rethought them in a more theatrical light. The final result, although still in need of some polishing, makes for high drama indeed.
Callow was first inspired to turn to the sonnets by a theory brought forth by psychoanalyst and literary scholar James Padel, who maintains that with a bit of careful rearrangement, these poems give us an insight into one of the most emotional parts of Shakespeare’s life. Padel claims Shakespeare was commissioned to write them for the young, beautiful William Herbert, with whom he soon became smitten. Shakespeare then forced Herbert together with his mistress (the legendary “dark lady,” in all likelihood a waiting woman to Elizabeth I named Mary Fritton).
The ensuing triangular relationship caused Shakespeare boundless pain and humiliation, but, like many lovers, he enjoyed that almost as much as the more euphoric moments.
Callow, dressed in a contemporary black suit, white shirt and no tie, begins with a bit too much explanation of who everyone was and what’s about to happen, with a kind of chatty PBS quality that is engaging but not what we’ve really come to see.
Once he gets into the sonnets, however, the change is magical. By running up to six of them together without a break, Callow makes you start to believe Padel’s theory could indeed be true and that these are the outcries of a soul in agony, not a series of bloodlessly written billets-doux.
The production is done in front of a small-scale duplication of Tanya Moisewitch’s famous thrust stage, and director Michael Langham moves Callow around with imagination and skill.
Only occasionally in the second act does it start to get a bit too busy, but one hopes Callow and Langham will refine that in time. Subtle lighting from Stratford vet Michael J. Whitfield and discreet musical cues from Peter McBoyle help ease the transitions between prose and poetry.
On opening night, Callow was a bit high-strung, underplaying his narrative sections and sometimes going over the top in the more dramatic moments, but it was easy to mentally shave off the excesses and see where the show would be after a few more performances.
No one knows his sonnets like Callow, and no one can bring the same passion to them. “There Reigns Love” may not be a likely entry for a commercial run, but one can see it playing hundreds of houses around the world to very satisfied customers for years to come.