Pros: Fresh, enjoyable writing and a new take on a body of work that stands the test of time.
Cons: Some of the technical details of the performance are still being hashed out.
Sebastian Michael was inspired to write The Sonneteer after a friend posted a sonnet a day on Facebook. Reading them sequentially made Michael see them as a story, rather than individual pieces, and his play focuses on those Shakespearean sonnets known as the Fair Youth sonnets.
Switching between the present day, where a middle-aged professor (played by Michael) embarks on an affair with his young, brash student (played by Tom Medcalf), and the 1590s(ish), when Shakespeare was writing the sonnets and devoting them to the young, brash Earl of Southampton, is an interesting choice: it highlights the timeless nature of the material, which still captures the difficulties and delights of love affairs, especially unexpected and unlikely ones. But the show is still finding its feet in the transitions between the two time periods and there were definite points where I wasn’t sure who was speaking or ‘when’ we were.
The power of this show is in the words, both the sonnets themselves and the new material Michael has written, with compelling dialogue and a realistic sense of the charged relationship between the two (or four?) characters. Without overburdening the script with exposition, Michael conveys character development and richness. There were a few places where I felt the script assumed knowledge that the audience might lack. For instance, if you don’t know that Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet died at age 11, you might be confused by a powerfully emotive scene near the end of the show (fortunately you’re reading this review, so you’re forearmed). Much of what you need to know about Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton is explained or can easily be deduced but there were a couple of allusions that didn’t seem obvious.
The performance itself still has a few rough spots to smooth out on the way to the Edinburgh Fringe. At times Michael and Medcalf seem so carried away by reciting the sonnets to each other that it’s a struggle to hear them speak. The intimacy of the gesture is palpable but I’d have liked to have heard the words too. For a show whose tagline is ‘Everything is conjecture. Except the words,’ there is a lot of focus on the production design, particularly the lighting, which at times becomes distracting. I always think it’s brave to allow reviewers to come to a preview night while the show is still developing, and with more rehearsal this production should feel more fluid and natural. The script is strong enough to stand upon sparser ground, though, and may even benefit from stripping away some of the other production elements.
Director Ros Philips makes the most of the Landor’s quirky layout, staging the show with energy and inventiveness. That dynamism keeps the pace moving and prevents the show from feeling like two guys reciting rhyming monologues at each other, a trap that a play about sonnets could easily fall into. Designer Jay Ramirez kits the actors out in imaginative takes on contemporary suits. Michael’s in particular, a caricature of professorial garb with its yellow socks, pockets, and collar, reminds me of buffoonish Malvolio’s yellow cross-gartered stockings from Twelfth Night and I wonder if this is deliberate or if there is an inference I haven’t caught. Either way I like it.
In its best moments The Sonneteer revels in the joy of language and in the power of words to move us. With a little more work the uneven elements of the production should be smoothed out and the whole will be equal to the sum of its parts.
Author: Sebastian Michael
Director: Ros Philips
Costume Designer: Jay Ramirez
Box Office: 020 7737 7276
Booking Until: 19 July 2014
Booking Link: http://www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/59160