The Late Mr. Shakespeare by Robert Nye

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BBC Radio 4, 1 November 2008

This fictional tale of Pickleherring (Jim Broadbent), looking back on his career as an actor in Shakespeare’s company had more than a distinct whiff of David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre. Accompanied by a boy (George Longworth) – who turns out to be a figment of his imagination – Pickleherring reconstructs scenes from his past. They include the day when Shakespeare hired him as a boy actor, the attempts made by Shakespeare’s brother John to seduce Queen Elizabeth I, and the scene in the Scottish Highlands where Willam Shakespeare allegedly had the inspiration to write Macbeth, while on tour with his company.


Jeremy Mortimer’s production offered Broadbent amply chance to show off his vocal virtuosity, as he played numerous roles – Pickleherring as an old man, John Shakespeare and Shakespeare himself. Basically this was a one-person show: Longworth acted as a foil to Broadbent, while offering sardonic commentaries in a manner reminiscent of Lear’s Fool. At the same time The Late Mr. Shakespeare had some penetrating things to say about gender stereotypes – unlike the Restoration, where women were freely permitted on the stage, in Shakespeare’s time only boys could play female roles. This had a destructive effect on Pickleherring’s sexuality, transforming him into a covert homosexual with a penchant for transvestism. Looking back on his life, he blamed Shakespeare for making him like this; while basking in the glow of stage stardom, Pickleherring had no opportunity to develop his masculine side.


The play ended with a scene taking place during the Great Fire of London (1666). Having completed his life-story, Pickleherring realized at last that he had come to terms with his sexuality. Now he could die in peace, secure in the knowledge that he had been released from Shakespeare’s malign shadow. This he proceeded to do in a dénouement worthy of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, as he was burned to death in his shabby lodgings. His imagination had been set free at last.