You’re in a hot air balloon with Alexander Fleming (before he discovers penicillin) and William Shakespeare. The balloon is sinking fast and you have to throw one of them out. Which one? Well, it has to be Fleming. Penicillin is out there waiting to be discovered, and someone will do it someday, but Shakespeare is a unique talent whose work speaks to the human being in all of us. So, the possibility that we might never have had his plays is unthinkable.  

But that might have been the case, were it not for Henry Condell and John Heminges. Condell and Heminges were members of The King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company. In The Book of Will, now showing at Shakespeare North in Prescot, writer Lauren Gunderson tells the story of how, six years after Shakespeare’s death, they decided to create a collection of the best texts of the plays and publish them in folio format. At the time, this was a rather grand and very expensive form of publication. This year is the 400th anniversary of the first printing.  

Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

It’s a complicated story. In the 17th century, copyright belonged to the first person to publish the written texts, and while many of the plays were in print, most were poor imitations cobbled together from the memories of people sent to see the plays, rather than from the original scripts. Shakespeare’s habit of only giving actors the scripts of the bits they were in (to prevent publishers stealing them) didn’t help.  

Condell and Heminges’ first task was to gather the best versions. And then there was the matter of choosing a publisher, which in the end was William Jaggard, a man whom Shakespeare had loathed. After that, the technicalities of editing and printing took over and, underpinning it all, the money. 

Gunderson – apparently the most performed playwright in America – brings all of this technical stuff to life. The acting is excellent all round, and the women have as much, if not more, to do than the men. Jessica Ellis as Alice Heminges, John’s daughter, is a bustling lively presence throughout who gets lots of laughs – I’ve never guffawed at the way an actor sat down before – and glues the play together. Carrie Quinlan is gorgeously wry as Elizabeth Condell who keeps husband Henry, a driven and wily Niall Costigan, firmly in his place.   

Helen Pearson gives a delicious Rebecca Heminges – you just know she still fancies her husband after all these years – and laughs him out of his despair at the task ahead, while Russell Richardson as Heminges hesitates like the Macbeth he might have been until given a good shove by the others. He has my sympathies.

Meanwhile, Zach Lee is fine as a declamatory Richard Burbage, outraged by the stuff passing for Shakespeare on the stage, and nicely nasty as William Jaggard, living gleefully down to his reputation. Andrew Whitehead is so obviously Ben Jonson reincarnated it’s difficult to imagine him playing anyone else, except perhaps Falstaff.  

Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

Tarek Slater has the thankless task of acting acting badly, and I’m afraid he does it rather well. He makes up for it later. Tomi Ogbaro is very cuddly as poor Ralph Crane, put upon by Ed Knight the stage manager and Isaac Jaggard the printer’s son, both played by Calum Sim and nicely distinguished.  

Act two is more fun than act one, but that has much to do with setting out the story. If I have a quibble, it’s that the exposition of the issues around the various versions is not sufficiently clear, and I had to go to Wiki to understand it. There was also a moment in act one where Heminges is telling his wife they have huge problems, but the story seemed to have arrived at the point where they had been solved. It was odd. Otherwise, this is an interesting and entertaining piece. There is also an exhibition in the gallery about the folio, including an original copy loaned by the British Library.  

If you haven’t been to this wonderful new theatre, which earlier this year won Theatre Building of the Year, The Book of Will is a good excuse to go. You have until Nov 11 

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Photos by Pamela Raith Photography

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The Book of Will is at Shakespeare North until November 11, 2023. For more information, click here.