The Last Will
The June Havoc Theatre
When William Shakespeare wrote his will, why did he leave his wife Anne Hathaway his “second-best bed”? This is the central question explored in Robert Brustein’s third play in a trilogy about Shakespeare. Some scholars have surmised that the bequest was an insult to Hathaway, a bit of score-settling that would only make sense to her. Others have wondered whether it was not a romantic gesture, something personal between them that might have made Hathaway smile. Brustein is firmly in the first camp, imagining a backstory in which a spent and shambling Shakespeare (Austin Pendleton) is losing his mind, confusing fact and fiction, and allowing his Goneril-like daughter Susanna (Merritt Janson) to poison his mind against both Anne (Stephanie Roth Haberle) and his pure-hearted and Cordelia-like daughter Judith (Christianna Nelson).
The tone of The Last Will is sour and rather juvenile, and the main plot point that Brustein concocts is very silly: Susanna hides a handkerchief so that the increasingly delirious playwright will suspect Anne of infidelity and call her Desdemona. There are jocular scenes between Shakespeare and actor Richard Burbage (Jeremiah Kissel) where they remember their past in whorehouses and, yes, Burbage actually says, “We have heard the chimes at midnight.” This Shakespeare is convinced he has a venereal disease—the reason, he thinks, for his unordered thoughts. The play is filled with anachronisms and vulgarities and almost no poetry—Shakespeare refers to himself at one point as a “drooping pair of horse testicles.”
Brustein has long been a distinguished theater critic. He created the Yale Repertory Theatre, and his many books have contributed vital thoughts and theories about the theater as a whole. Just what he is trying to accomplish with this small, cramped, ungenerous play on the last days of Shakespeare is more than a bit mysterious. Pendleton, who also directs, took over the role of Shakespeare in rehearsals when another actor dropped out. Consequently, he has a bit of trouble with his lines, but he struggles valiantly to bring depth and conviction to The Last Will, wandering the stage barefoot and trying to keep our attention with periodic bursts of anger. The pacing, unfortunately, is so slow that the show’s 80 minutes seem to stretch into several hours of pauses amid kvetching and legal wrangling. The set by Stephen Dobay, which is flanked by two large columns of what looks like balled-up paper, is quite appropriate and evocative, and this set is the only contribution here that might have been carried over to some better play and production. So little is known about Shakespeare that any drama you might imagine for him is bound to be impertinent if not outright foolish. Brustein’s play on our greatest dramatic poet lacks both a point and that all-important touch of empathy that might activate its foraging around in Shakespeare’s sparse dirty laundry.
Photo Kim T. Sharp