REVIEW – Devizes Arts Festival – The Second Best Bed @ The Merchant Suite 23rd June 2022

The Plays What She Wrote

Andy Fawthrop

The Devizes Arts Festival’s presentation last night was a right little gem.

Alright, it definitely helped if you were slightly interested in William Shakespeare and his back-story, but it certainly wasn’t compulsory in order to have found this production quite fascinating. The central conceit of this compelling monologue, superbly played by Liz Grand, was that her recently-deceased husband William, that “upstart crow”, hadn’t in fact written any of his famous plays and poems at all – and that she, Anne Hathaway, was the real literary genius behind the scenes. Addressing a bust of the bard in her bed-chamber, occasionally sitting upon and referring to the eponymous second-best bed, Anne recounted in hilarious detail how the two of them had, jointly, carried off this major deception over the many years of their marriage.

The piece managed to convey both much factual (or at least conjectured) biographical detail – their marriage, the deaths of their children, the vagaries of the court and the theatrical players of their times – as well as the comic flights of fancy that constructed the central myth of bard’s true authorship. Her description of her trips to London, disguised as a man, to see her own plays performed on the stage, and debated in the taverns, whilst passing unrecognised by her oblivious and complacent husband were hilarious. And to later catch him in flagrante with not just one, but two, whores, just proved to her that her that the man was none too bright.

Anne, now widowed, spoke of her regret that her contribution, indeed her literary genius, had not been recognised. It was not now enough, following William’s death, to simply claim authorship since no-one would ever believe her. It would have needed Will to admit the deception, to corroborate the deceit, whilst he was still alive. And the chance of that had now gone forever. She railed at her ex-hubby – a man who couldn’t even spell his own name the same way twice – for having taken all the credit.

There was some clever stuff here if you listened carefully, with many famous lines from both the plays and the sonnets freely scattered in among the scripted lines, and some hilarious explanations of why certain things had been written the way they had. Indeed one of the highlights towards the end was the now-dead Bard arguing with his own genius wife about why she’d written the various roles of the plays’ heroes and heroines the way she had. Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and all the flawed tragic men were swiftly eviscerated, and the roles of the women – Lady Macbeth, Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, the “Dark Lady” and the rest – were all grounded in the lives and feelings of real, oppressed women.

Both the script, and Liz Grand’s performance, were a tour de force, eagerly lapped up by an appreciative audience. An entertaining and instructive evening all round.

The Devizes Arts Festival continues only for two more days until Saturday 25th June at various venues across town. Tickets can be booked at Devizes Books or online at www.devizesartsfestival.org.uk


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