Don’t expect to brush up your Shakespeare by seeing Arthur Phillips’ “The Tragedy of King Arthur by William Shakespeare.” This play within a play, which takes up most of the stage time in the similarly titled, problematic drama from the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project, is a fake.
The show revolves around a booklet purporting to be a 1597 quarto of a supposedly lost history by Shakespeare that covers the reign of Britain’s King Arthur back in the Dark Ages. The booklet, locked up for years in a safety deposit box, has been left to novelist Phillips by his recently deceased father. If genuine, the play itself would be worth a fortune. Phillips, however, knows his father was a chronic—as well as convicted—counterfeiter, creating facsimiles of everything from crop circles to grocery coupons, and he is sure the quarto is another of his father’s fakes. Meanwhile, scholars from everywhere are enthusiastically authenticating the play, and Phillips’ publisher is pushing to get it in print, but Phillips ponders whether to go ahead with the scam. As he deliberates, the play is enacted.
Phillips based the play on his critically acclaimed 2011 novel, more succinctly titled “The Tragedy of Arthur.” The phony Shakespeare script, with footnotes, takes up only about a third of the book. Most of the novel is an engrossing depiction of the family’s difficult relationships as well as a delicious and knowing romp through the pedantry of Shakespeare scholarship. In the stage adaptation, however, the family dynamics are given short shrift. It’s the faux play that’s the thing, and it’s approached with a seriousness that makes you wonder whether the production’s aim is to convince the audience that it could well have been written by the Bard. The problem is that it’s not a very good play.
It is, however, an admirable imitation of the Shakespeare format. There’s plenty of sound and fury, lots and lots of iambic pentameter, soliloquies, and more obscure terms than any Shakespeare play could guarantee. But the language rarely soars, and the narrative has no propulsive force. Arthur becomes king, and there’s one war after another. The English battle the Saxons, the Scots, and the Irish as Arthur fends off his Scottish cousin Mordred’s designs on the throne.
Jordan Reeves’ staging is constantly inventive, production values are commendable, and the actors act up a storm. The seven-person cast includes Jacques Roy, portraying both the novelist and King Arthur; Sarah Hankins, doubling as Phillips’ ever-enthusiastic sister and Mordred; Eric Emil Oleson, as Phillips’ father and Gloucester, Arthur’s mentor; and Madeleine Maby, as the women in Arthur’s life. But as the words, words, words pile on for some two hours and 50 minutes (including intermission), the tedium mounts. You may feel like another Shakespearean king—Richard II, to be exact—who toward the end of his journey declares: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
Critic’s Score: C