A DARKLY minimalist set of two chairs, a table, and a sideboard, unchanging through 11 scenes — this signalled a play defined more by deftly crafted dialogue than fast-paced action; and, of course, it provided the perfect vehicle for Rowan Williams’s perceptive and poetic imagination.
What was being evoked here, in a production of his play Shakeshafte, at the Dylan Thomas Theatre, Swansea, was the febrile atmosphere of Elizabethan England as the tide of anti-Roman Catholic sentiment was at the full. The Jesuit Edmund Campion was one of the most prominent priests providing a clandestine ministry to recusants, often in large country houses.
Around 1580, Campion was likely to have been secretly housed by Alexander Houghton at Hoghton Tower, Lancashire. With him are two grammar-school boys from Stratford recommended by their schoolmaster, John Cottam, who had Catholic sympathies and was brought up near Hoghton Tower. One is Fulk Gillom, and the other is Will Shakeshafte.
Whether this was, indeed, the 16-year-old William Shakespeare is hotly contested, as is the claim that Shakespeare was at least sympathetic towards the “old religion”. Williams doesn’t commit himself either way, because, for his purposes here, he doesn’t have to. What emerges from Shakeshafte’s extended exchanges with Campion (alias Hastings) is that Williams sees Shakespeare as an alternative ambassador for truth. At a time of competing claimants, there is Catholicism, Protestantism — and Shakespeare.
His take on truth, fiercely contested by Campion, is more psychological than theological. It is about penetrating the inner man or woman (sexual metaphors are very explicit at this point) to be in touch with the truths that really matter.
Unsurprisingly, this troubles and mystifies the minor characters in their interactions with Shakeshafte. This especially applies to the servant Margery (very well played by Alison Saunders), with whom the audience can readily identify as she gamely struggles to comprehend her enigmatic seducer.
Campion warns young Shakeshafte/Shakespeare that his evolving views can lead only to idolatry of the human persona at the expense of divine truth. We sense that this is a warning with which Williams has some sympathy, although his own humane instincts incline him away from Jesuitical triumphalism — even when articulated by a priest of evident courage and conviction.
While the initial scene-setting is somewhat laboured, and a little more stagecraft might counter a tendency for the tension to sag at times, this is a story well told. There are brilliant exchanges on, for example, the magic and meaning of medieval Mystery plays, and on the power of poetic imagination. The spider “weaving worlds from its bowels” is but one of many evocative metaphors.
By no means least, the play has topical relevance at a time when religious extremism competes with post-modern relativism for the 21st-century soul.
Whether or not Shakeshafte was Shakespeare, this thoughtful and thought-provoking portrayal deserves to be staged beyond Williams’s native West Wales, where it was very well received.