Shakespeare enthusiasts, and even those of you who just want to find out whatever happened to that dashing yet condescending Brit, Robin Colcord (Cheers), should make a mad dash to hear Roger Rees talk about Shakespeare and then some in his acclaimed one man show, What You Will, running at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre through August 9. What are you in for? Rees will take you through his over forty years of Shakespearience and offer up witty anecdotes about the likes of Sirs Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, Charles Laughton, Ben Kingsley and more. These historical/legendary quips are smattered with a collection of comedic quibbles that highlight our beloved, but rather misunderstood Bard.
The now sixty-four year young British actor, still with the thick and tousled hair that falls back into place no matter how many times he scruffles it during his ninety minute mouthful, seems eternally youthful in both appearance and enthusiasm. His passion for Shakespeare and his keen observations about people and situations are only emphasized by his ability to tell a good story and to punch a good line. Rees is also endearing, following each cohesive bit by a facetious smile, head slightly bowed and with his smiling eyes looking up at his audience. Sort of what you’d expect from the cat who swallowed the canary.
Enter Rees with a bust of the Bard under his arm. The stage is set with all the right props—a throne-like chair with a crown dangling on the corner of its back; a trunk; a lute; a shield and a bloody sheet; stacks of books topped with goblets here and there; the ever-important rapier, and books scattered around the perimeter of the large rug covering the stage floor, these old books offering credence to Rees’ stories as he leafs through their pages.
And what of these stories? Memory lane will take you to Rees’ humble beginnings as a scenery painter and his equally humble beginnings at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he climbed the ranks from playing non-speaking, spear-clutching soldiers (standing side by side with the now "Sir" Ben Kingsley) to the forever-contemplating Hamlet, encompassing twenty-two years with the acclaimed company. You’ll hear why Noel Coward gave Vivien Leigh the nickname “Butterstumps” after her role as Lavinia in Peter Brooks’ 1955 production of Titus Andronicus, starring Sir Laurence Olivier. Rees will tell you how he and Sir Laurence tipped a glass in reverence to Olivier’s good friend and colleague, Sir Ralph Richardson, upon hearing of his death via a telephone call. Richardson played Falstaff to Olivier’s Hotspur in a memorable 1945 production of Henry IV, Part 1 at London’s New Theatre. You’ll learn how it is Rees got to walk in Charles Laughton’s shoes, or more literally, his boots. Rees will also walk you through James Thurber’s Macbeth Murder Mystery and even offer a bit of the “Hokey Pokey” for you dance enthusiasts. And in between, Rees has a divine way in which he offers a bit of comfort in the midst of the discomfort many seem to have with Shakespeare and his language, recalling a long list of student blogs, offering such insights as “Hamlet suffers from an edible complex,” or “Romeo’s last wish was to be laid by Juliet.” Rees also quotes a little Voltaire, who believed, “Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada.”
Rees adds weightiness to all this brevity and levity with some of Shakespeare’s meaty soliloquies, delivered in such a way that leaves you wanting and wishing for the whole play. ACT transforms into that Wooden O “for a muse of fire,” and for that “rogue and peasant slave.” Rees compares love "to a summer’s day," and speaks “But soft” to the balcony stage left. And of course he asks that enduring question, “To be or not to be” before ending this very human-oriented show.
There’s something about Rees that seems larger than life. Certainly this show is about him, but it’s also about the lives of others, and the lifework of one great playwright. Perhaps that’s the effect of passion. It’s surely the affect of good theatre. During his rendition of Macbeth’s soliloquy, in which the soon to be Scottish King questions the existence of a bloody dagger before him, a stage light shines from just below Rees’ frame, casting a great shadow upon the red velvet curtain behind him. Looking at this looming figure rich in Shakespearean repose, I couldn’t help but think about all the ghosts Rees conjured during his ninety minute strut upon the stage, and to tip my own proverbial glass to them all.