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Where Late the Songbird: Shakespeare’s domesticity

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Rehearsing for Where Late the Songbird at Newcastle Art Space are playwright and actor Carl Caulfield, Alexandra McKeown, Claire Williams, Angie Diaz and Angela McKeown. Picture: Jonathan CarrollTHE premiere of Where Late the Songbird at the Civic Playhouse on April 22 is appropriate. That is the birth date of the play’s central character, William Shakespeare. Or is it?
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Carl Caulfield, who wrote the play and is cast as the Bard, extensively researched Shakespeare’s life while on a visit to England.

He said the church beside the site where the playwright is buried notes April 22 as the birth date. But there is no official record of his birth, though he is known to have been baptised on April 26, 1564, and there is a lot of argument about whether he was born on April 21, 22 or 23.

His death on April 23, 1616, is recorded, with many scholars suggesting he died on his birthday.

Where Late the Songbird is set in the last years of Shakespeare’s life, with the writer-actor returning to his Stratford home in 1613 after spending most of his time from the late 1580s in London.

He finds that all is not well. His wife, Anne Hathaway, is understandably less than welcoming after his repeated absences and his two daughters, one married and the other preparing to wed, are facing problems.

He also upsets the farming community which provides much of the work around Stratford.

Caulfield notes that while Shakespeare became famous because of his plays, it was his shares in theatres, especially the Globe Theatre, that made him wealthy. He invested in farming land at Stratford, becoming involved in an angry debate about open farmland being enclosed by individual owners.

Caulfield began thinking about writing a play looking at Shakespeare’s late-life domesticity while performing as the playwright in 2010 in a comedy he wrote called Shakespeare’s Fools.

As the title suggests, that play’s focus is on the actors who played the comic characters in Shakespeare’s plays. The writer made occasional appearances to deliver instructions to the “fools”, and while Caulfield was in the wings waiting to go on stage he often thought about Shakespeare’s private life and relationships.

The writer occasionally gave hints of his personal relationships in his sonnets, making references to songbirds in them.

Sonnet 102, for example, which has references to nightingales, ends with the words:

“And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.

Therefore, like her, I sometime hold my tongue,

Because I would not dull you with my song.”

The cast of Where Late the Songbird has Caulfield playing Shakespeare, with Claire Williams as Anne Hathaway, Angie Diaz as their older and married daughter, Susanna Hall, Angela McKeown as the younger daughter, Judith, who is preparing for marriage, and Alexandra McKeown as Susanna’s daughter, Elizabeth, who, unlike the family’s other female members, warms to her grandfather after he returns to Stratford.

The other actors play multiple roles. Brian Randell is both Susanna’s husband and the man Judith plans to wed; Phil McGrath is playwright John Fletcher and actor and theatre owner Richard Burbage; Barney Langford is a farmer, judge and actor; and Theo Rule is a beggar and a clownish fool who is a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination, offering him amusing but sharp advice, and even a song, when he is troubled.

Caulfield co-directs the production with wife Felicity Biggins.

As Claire Williams notes, the play shows Shakespeare to share many of the hopes and problems people have today.

Anne Hathaway, for example, was six to eight years older than her husband, and she sharply reminds him at one point that “I knew you when you were a 16-year-old” when he is having difficulty adjusting to being a good husband and father.

Older daughter Susanna had been falsely accused of adultery and, though this had been shown to be untrue, she is still suffering from being considered a fallen woman.

And younger daughter Judith is a problem child. She is interested in a man whom Shakespeare learns is probably far from suitable as a husband.

The play also shows Shakespeare being visited by London theatre people who wanted him to continue writing.

They try, for example, to get him to adapt the popular Spanish novel, Don Quixote, for the stage.

There has long been a legend that Shakespeare was involved with John Fletcher in such an adaptation, and that it became one of his so-called lost plays.

And Shakespeare is seen at one point in this work as a Quixotic character, leaping onto the stage with a sword and in an angry and threatening mood.

Caulfield said he used Where Late the Songbird to show Shakespeare as a man, not a genius.

When researching Shakespeare’s life, he read several biographies of him and none of them looked at his relationship with Anne Hathaway from her perspective.

That is one of the things he has included in this play.

Where Late the Songbird opens at the Civic Playhouse on Wednesday, April 22, and plays Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, plus 2pm Saturday matinees, until May 2. Tickets: $40; concession and Civic subscriber $30; youth (under 30), $20. Bookings: Civic Ticketek, 49291977.

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