I have always found it irritating when newspapers give misleading or unnecessarily judgmental headlines to articles about the theatre. I remember specifically a review in the Ottawa Citizen of A Night in November: the title just talked about how the theatre space was difficult to find! I mean, way to give credit to Pierre Brault’s performance.
Unfortunately, I have decided to be completely hypocritical and give this write-up a somewhat misleading title, simply because it sounds catchy. I know: I’m a total sell-out. Despite what my title implies, Keir Cutler is neither “Religulous” (that was a movie created by Bill Maher to reveal the utter stupidity of believing in the Bible), nor is he “Ridiculous” (though I heard Alvina Ruprecht muttering the word a couple of times at the beginning of the show in reference to some of the arguments against the notion that W. Shakespeare wrote the works of Shakespeare). However, both these items relate to the performance at hand.
Cutler’s play is based on a work by Mark Twain called Is Shakespeare Dead? that argues that it is highly unlikely (and therefore logically untrue) that Shakespeare wrote any plays at all in his lifetime. In fact, the name “Shakespeare” may in fact be a pen name – to “shake” a “spear” as in a writing utensil. In this Fringe Festival production, the performer famous for his Teaching Shakespeare trilogy (also including Teaching As You Like It and Teaching the Fringe) presents Twain’s claims in a dramatic and hilarious fashion.
From what I have seen of Cutler’s work, his performance style resembles that of an eccentric university professor giving a scintillating, albeit frustrating lecture. I say “frustrating” because, as Alvina indicated, not all of the arguments are presented in much detail: it sparks a rebellious streak in audience members, making us want to answer back, to get involved in the discussion, to offer rebuttals based on our own research and our knowledge of theatre. For a time, I wondered if I could shout something out: after all, Cutler does encourage audience participation at the beginning of the show when he asks us what we know about Shakespeare. But then, it would be a shame to interrupt the flow of the piece. Cutler’s performance is seemingly effortless: he seduces us with his arguments, offering examples whenever necessary; he travels across the stage in great strides wearing what looks like a black clergy coat (someone please correct me if I am misinterpreting the costume design) — perhaps making a mockery of the religious sect of Shakespeare?
Countless times Cutler compares the believers in Shakespeare (Troglodytes, he calls them) to the believers in the Bible. These are all people that desperately want to believe in miracles: such as a likely illiterate man writing the greatest works of the English language, such as a man walking on water and coming back from the dead. On closer inspection, Cutler is doing exactly what Bill Maher does in his film Religulous. The message is the same: people who believe in Shakespeare are in denial; people who believe in the Bible are in denial; these people are potentially dangerous and must be stopped. In both cases, people are choosing to believe in something without any proof at all; and they are doing so without considering the more logical alternatives. In terms of Shakespeare’s works, it is far more likely that they were written by Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, or even Queen Elizabeth I.
But Cutler does not offer any definitive answers. Instead, he is working in the same strain as John Patrick Shanley in the play Doubt: A Parable that pleads not for conviction, but hesistation. Sometimes it is more difficult to be suspicious, to be doubtful, to have reservations about something as important as the creation of the English language or even the creation of the world. To have absolute faith in something can be very limiting because, well, then there is no place else to go, nothing else to consider.
With this piece Keir Cutler may be doing more than simply debunking the myth of William Shakespeare…
To see a video clip of this production, click here.