Stage Door Review

I Am William

Saturday, August 21, 2021

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by Rébecca Déraspe, music by Chloé Lacasse & Benoît Landry, translated by Leanna Brodie, directed by Esther Jun

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy, Stratford

August 14-September 12, 2021

Margaret: “I boil over with this injustice”

The reason that the Stratford Festival is staging I Am William by Québécois playwright Rébecca Déraspe is that it is a children’s play about Shakespeare with the uplifting message that anyone should be able free to be whatever they want no matter their gender. The problem with Déraspe’s play is that she conveys her message with what is literally a pack of lies. I don’t recall hearing so many falsehoods presented as fact in such a short space (only 90 minutes) since the press conferences of the former US president.

To introduce the action, Déraspe has a character tell us that the action we are about to see happened “once upon a long time ago” as if Déraspe constructed a fairy tale out of elements of history. Yet, at the same time she has the same character tell us that we are about to witness history not as it was but as “it ought to have been”. As we soon see this is an extraordinary statement since Déraspe has deliberately falsified history to make it worse than it actually was. She wants history to be worse than it was to make her heroine’s triumph seem greater. Yet, as it turns out, it is only through outside assistance that she succeeds – a result that completely undermines Déraspe’s original intention.

Déraspe’s basic premise is that Shakespeare had a twin sister, Margaret, who, in fact, wrote all of his plays and for which William took the credit. The time is 1577 as characters tell us frequently in direct address. At that time, according to the play, women were not allowed to learn to read and write. This is simply false. From the Middle Ages on women took on tasks for which reading and writing were required. In his essay “Education of Women” (1581) Richard Mulcaster states that there is no excuse not to educate women: “Our country doth allow it; our duty doth enforce it; their aptness calls for it; their excellency commands it”. His prime example of the ideal educated woman is Queen Elizabeth I herself, who had been on the throne since 1558. 

As Déraspe depicts it, Margaret (Margaret Shakura Dickson) has had to acquire all her knowledge of reading and writing by listening to the lessons William (Landon Doak) receives at school (where girls are not allowed). As it happened, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries from 1536 to 1541, secular schools replaced the convent school and lessons were taught both by men and women to both boys and girls. The rise of Protestantism in 1517 in fact made it a priority that everyone, including women, should be able to read the Bible, if nothing else.   

Even in the context of Déraspe’s play it is implausible that Margaret could perform all the menial tasks that her mother heaps on her and have time to spend listening to lessons at William’s school.

The lie of enforced illiteracy for women is not enough for Déraspe. She has to make 1577 an even more dangerous time for women’s knowledge. In a vivid scene Margaret’s mother (Shannon Taylor) calls her in for a special talk in which she reveals what has just happened to Margaret’s friend Benedicta. Apparently, the authorities discovered that Benedicta could read and write and therefore accused her of witchcraft. The girl died in a trial by ducking stool.

Déraspe is clearly ignorant of the Witchcraft Act of 1563 and in force until 1604 in England. Under this act a witch could be executed for witchcraft only if her spells resulted in homicide. Lesser offences were punishable by prison. Literacy, however, was not a triable offence. Let us remember again that Queen Elizabeth I could not only read and write in English, but in several languages. She translated from the classics throughout her lifetime and published her work as early as 1548 (A Godly Meditation of the Christian Soul).

In any case, Déraspe has Margaret’s mother tell her the terrible tale of Benedicta in order to warn her to stop writing or at least hide everything she does write. Margaret, however, continues to write because she has such a strong need to express herself and, in fact, inspired by her brother’s hopeless love for a girl named Amuletta, writes a play about a youth with just such a hopeless love.

To find out if her work is any good, she has William submit it under his name to his schoolmaster and his schoolmaster, deeply impressed, passes on the play to the visiting Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88). The Earl (John Allan Louis) is so impressed that he summons William to him and says not only that he will have the play performed in London but will have William play the lead role of Amuletta. Leicester indeed was the patron of two well known children’s theatre companies. These companies developed from boys choirs who were given training in acting as a pedagogical device to improve diction. 

Unfortunately, this whole story of Willian and Leicester is pure fantasy. Shakespeare is known to have been in Stratford in 1582 when he married Anne Hathaway and his not mentioned in connection with London until 1592. Nevertheless, Déraspe has Shakespeare perform in his own play in 1577 to great acclaim thus pleasing both William, who loves acting, and Margaret, who loves writing. As a final touch of fantasy, Déraspe uses a regina ex machina to solve Margaret’s difficulty about practicing her forbidden skill of writing.

Yes, totally unbelievable as it may seem, Déraspe has Elizabeth I herself (Taylor again) go backstage because she divined that such a play could not have been written by a man but only a woman, Finding Margaret with William she sees at once that Margaret must be the true author. To protect her from witchfinders, she invites Margaret to live with her at her palace to to continue to write as long as she is willing to have William take the credit. Thus, all is solved and Margaret, though unacknowledged by history, is happy simply to have her plays performed. 

So, according to Déraspe, this is the way history ought to be – unbelievable and worse than it actually was? To her it is a discipline not based in fact but in fantasy. We know that throughout history women’s intellect was belittled and female writers often had to resort to publishing their work under a male pseudonym. Yet, what are we meant to learn from a play where everything presented as a fact is false? Logically, a conclusion from a series of falsehoods should also be deemed false thus destroying Déraspe’s notion that anyone should be able free to be whatever they want no matter their gender.

Québécois critics found Déraspe’s play “playful” but anyone with any notion of Elizabethan history will find her distortions outrageous especially in a play meant for children. How many parents are equipped to tell their children about all the historical inaccuracies in the play, and how many will be willing to explain why they’ve taken their children to a play full of lies?

To soften the unavoidably didactic tone of the play, Déraspe has filled it with jaunty songs by Chloé Lacasse and Benoît Landry, though few of those last more than a minute. An onstage band of three accompanies the songs and the music is, without doubt, the most enjoyable part of the show. They would be more enjoyable, however, if director Esther Jun did not encourage the actors so often to motion for more applause.

The parts are all well played. Landon Doak is ideally cast as Déraspe’s version of Shakespeare – a likeable, sensitive, enthusiastic, unpretentious boy, who admires his sister’s ability and is embarrassed to take credit for her work. Margaret Shakura Dickson is a sympathetic Margaret, dedicated and strong, yet appalled by the injustice around her. 

John Allan Louis plays John Shakespeare, the twins’ father, as the tyrannical villain Déraspe has written. He deplores Margaret’s love of reading and thinks it effeminate for William to want to help his mother with the dishes. Louis clearly distinguishes the brusque John Shakespeare from the elegant and smooth-speaking Earl of Leicester. Shannon Taylor pays Mary Arden, the twins’ mother, as the beleaguered, worn-down housewife Déraspe has written. Déraspe gives us no hint that Mary was the daughter of a Warwickshire family of high status and wealth. Taylor shines as the fairy-godmother-like Elizabeth I, whose grandeur and upright carriage contrast with the fearful drudge that Mary is.

Lee Hall’s play Shakespeare in Love (2014), adapted from Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for the 1998 film of the same name, was a delightful piece of speculative history since it at least stayed enough within the bounds of known history that it was a pleasure to see how Stoppard’s account of the unknown history filled in the gaps. Rébecca Déraspe’s I Am William, on the other hand, has no place at a Shakespeare festival because in disrespecting the real history of Shakespeare’s time it also disrespects the audience. The Schulich Children’s Plays at the Stratford Festival really need to be more closely vetted.

And, just by the way, so does the song that Esther Jun chooses to close the play. The cast dance to, and we are asked to clap along with Ava Max’s 2019 song “So Am I”. Jun obviously likes the song’s chorus “Oh, but it’s okay to be different / ’Cause baby, so am I” since it seems to suit the moral of the play. But the lyrics of the song include the lines: “Oh so, dressed so fancy like Sid and Nancy (yeah) / Walkin’ Killer Queen, gotta keep ’em guessin’ / So baby come pass me a lighter /  We’re gonna leave ’em on fire”. So, according to the song, Sid Vicious who killed Nancy Spungen and later overdosed on heroin is an example of how “it’s okay to be different”. Maybe everybody on the production team should have thought about this a little more.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Landon Doak as William and Margaret Shakura Dickson as Margaret; Landon Doak as William and John Allan Louis as Leicester; Margaret Shakura Dickson as Margaret and Shannon Taylor as Mary. © 2021 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.