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Seana McKenna as Anne Hathaway in Shakespeare's Will.

Richard Bain/Richard Bain

2.5 out of 4 stars

Shakespeare's Will - Winnipeg-born Vern Thiessen's speculative biographical play about Anne Hathaway - is back at Stratford for a second time in the Studio Theatre slot reserved for star vehicles. As in 2007, Seana McKenna takes on the role.

The Hathaway in question is Shakespeare's older wife, not the eager Oscars co-host, I suppose I should clarify. Unlike her nubile name-sharer, very little is known of Mrs. Shakespeare - though her husband's curious decision to bequeath her his "second-best bed" in his will is rather (in)famous.

At the start of Thiessen's play, Hathaway has been handed Will's will and is on the verge of reading it, but decides to relive her entire life story first for no particularly pressing reason. With our pre-existing knowledge of the document, the play becomes a kind of mystery. Will she be thrilled - there are those who have theorized, unconvincingly, that second-best was a whimsical reference to their marriage bed - or will she see it as a posthumous poke in the eye?

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In Thiessen's admittedly "fast and loose" version of events, Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare have a very special marriage. He's a bisexual, leaning toward gay on the Kinsey scale. She doesn't mind; she wants to continue bedding as many men as possible. They had wed only after a literal and somewhat experimental roll in the hay left her pregnant.

After Shakespeare departs for London to be a playwright, however, Hathaway is left in Stratford to deal with babies and bodily fluids, as well as with passing plagues and the meddling of her "bitch" sister-in-law, Joan. She also entertains a gaggle of gentlemen and does not exactly lie back and think of England while doing so.

In a controlled and charismatic performance under the direction of Miles Potter, McKenna brings Thiessen's anachronistic proto-feminist to full life and makes us believe in her and her overly flowery use of simile. And yet, there's no getting away from the fact that Shakespeare's Will is ultimately a drama once removed. Hathaway is of interest only because of whom she married. Thiessen's play, likewise, is riding on his coattails.

Shakespeare's Will

  • Written by Vern Thiessen
  • Directed by Miles Potter
  • Starring Seana McKenna
  • At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Shakespeare's Will runs at the Studio Theatre in Stratford, Ont., until Sept. 2.

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