Bristol Theatre News

Review: Shakespeare’s Fool at Tobacco Factory Theatres

It’s a story we are all so familiar with in 2023 – that of a person making celebrity status through their craft, suffering a misfortune, a twist of fate or making a fundamental decision that either sees them cancelled or fade away. It was several barneys with William Shakespeare, which led to William Kempe’s fateful decision to go it alone. This is where we meet him, at the end result of that. He’s attempting to earn pennies juggling apples in Bankside. He’s a drunken mess, barely functioning, though with obvious glimmers as to his former glory.

With time to do one final performance, we are the silent observers to this. Kempe’s final performance is to an audience of two – a dying mouse and marotte.

Robin Leetham is Will Kempe. He makes a seemless transition from lonely drunkard fighting a mouse in Bankside into an actor in his prime. At times, he was reminiscent of Oliver Reed in those fluctuating TV interview moments where brilliance and inebriation collide.

Writer T G Hofman has created a 16th century human story from real historical facts surrounding the life of William Kempe. It was well considered, with tales of growth, love, loss and against a backdrop of some of the most important theatrical development of all time.

Kempe was a comic actor who loved engaging the audience’s attention. His reputation was such that he went on to become one of the shareholders in the original Globe Theatre and one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He crafted iconic performances that drew the ire of writer William Shakespeare. Rather like Jim Carrey, there’s comic acting performances and there’s iconic comic acting performances. It appears that Shakespeare – in the view of Kempe – was not a fan of the latter.

It’s no surprise when Kempe discloses he saves the day in an incident where the actors performing Pyramus and Thisbe in a Midsummer Night’s Dream are off ill. He jumps in to play all the characters by himself. A performance of great acclaim that saw hands thrown between him and Shakespeare.

With Hannah Marshall’s costume design and Leetham’s intimate performance, we get the sense that we are sitting on straw ridden floors with flickering candlelight in the Elizabethan era. Alice Humphrey’s Marotte took on a life of its own, as it barked and ridiculed Kempe, forming his inner monologue.

As this is a solo performance, it might have been better to curtain off more of the stage. It’s a performance that you want to feel close to but the space at times felt quite large.

Sometimes the pace felt too fast. More space allowing the audience to build pictures in their head would have been ideal. This meant that moments when the monologue was supposed to be very fast didn’t have the right impact. There were also parts that warranted our reflection, but we were off onto the next bit and didn’t have the time to do so.

It was a huge contrast to the opening and closing of the show which was paced brilliantly, giving Kempe the time to really give us sense of who he is and where he’s at in life.

Shakespeare’s Fool brought to life what can often be a stuffy and academic subject, giving the time period a sense of vibrance and dynamism. Robin Leetham gave William Kempe the legacy and memoriam he missed, evoking a sense of pathos at yet another key talent who didn’t get the happy ending deserved.

Shakespeare’s Fool is at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 13 October 2023

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Cast and Creatives
William Kempe – Robin Leetham
Directed by – Ben Humphrey
Costume Design and Creation by Hannah Marshall
Marotte Design and Creation by Alice Humphrey
Mouse Wrangler was Susan Brunt
Written by T G Hofman