In the year celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, London is bustling with theatre celebrating the Bard. Tony Diggle’s play A Kingdom for a Stage brings together Shakespeare and his contemporaries in a story that switches between the afterlife, present-day London, and Early Modern Stratford-Upon-Avon. While the play explores interesting aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works, the mismatch of ideas created by Diggle become quite dull at points.
Shakespeare is sitting wide-eyed staring at the audience. Around him, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, George Bernard Shaw, and Puck try to understand what has placed him in this state of shock. It becomes apparent that he has written a new play after visiting the present-day City of London. To establish whether or not the play is any good, the group of players decide it should be acted out. While this is going on, Shakespeare looks back to his youth and his life in Statford-Upon-Avon, thinking about his wife Anne. Finally, the play ends with a song and prologue delivered by the Bard himself.
The playwrights arguing and jesting with each other in the opening of the play is very enjoyable, and starts the show off on a high. Diggle playfully includes references to each of the characters’ work and history in these scenes, which is appreciated by those who can pick them up in the audience. The rivalry between Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson is hilarious to watch. However, as the play moves into Stratford-Upon-Avon in the middle part of the first half, the dialogue begins to get stuffy. Although the historical content is interesting, and Diggle interprets Shakespeare’s home life in a unique way, the lengthiness of the dialogue becomes tedious. The conversations between Anne and Shakespeare’s father John feels very static, and the fact that it goes on for so long without much action means it is easy to become distracted.
In the second half, the players perform Shakespeare’s newly written play. Diggle cleverly uses it as a social commentary on the state London is in now: the hustle and bustle of the city, money, the stock market, loans, banks, and the desperation of its people. The language of the play within a play is very poetic, and Diggle weaves into it lines from Shakespeare’s own plays. It is a modern-day morality play, as Shaw remarks, complete with Marlowe’s own Mephistopheles and Seven Deadly Sins. But after this ends, the action goes back to its flat self. It seems the Bard’s trips to Stratford-Upon-Avon cannot be completed unless a boring soliloquy or dialogue ensues. Maybe it is just the fact that the London Shakespeare is far more interesting than the family man.
The ensemble are brilliant and there are some great stand-out performances. Jonathan Coote is admirable as Will Shakespeare, the poetry rolling off his tongue with ease, and commanding the stage like an excellent player. Christopher Knott’s short but hilarious visit as an Angel adds wonderful comedy to the piece. Caitlin McMillan as Mephistopheles does a tremendous job as the alluring and damming character.
While the ideas presented by Diggle are a great concept, it seems in this instance they do not work well together. There are too many ideas trying to be placed into one play. On the one hand, there is the delightful conversation between the great playwrights, and Shakespeare’s visit to present-day London (which I wish was longer) and consequently the brilliantly written play within the play. On the other hand, the long dialogues between members of Shakespeare’s family, and his relationship with his wife and daughters, drags the play out, which outweighs the great elements of A Kingdom for a Stage.
A Kingdom for a Stage is at the Chelsea Theatre until 7th May