The endless richness of William Shakespeare’s work contrasts with a relative poverty of information about his life. Even less is known about his wife, the former Anne Hathaway. Shakespeare spent most of his time in London, writing and acting, and returned to Anne in Stratford for only a few weeks a year until near the end of his life. When he died, his will infamously bequeathed her his “second best bed.”
From these few facts, Robert Brustein weaves a tragic speculation in “The Last Will,” the final piece of his trilogy about the Bard’s life, now having its world premiere at the Modern Theatre in a co-production by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Suffolk University.
Shakespeare, played by Allyn Burrows, returns from London and, on the flimsiest of evidence, accuses Anne of having cuckolded him with his brother. Anne (Brooke Adams) is appalled by the charge, which she rejects, but she is also the first to notice that her husband is ill, his mind and body wracked by syphilis from one of his affairs.
Over a brisk and compelling 80 minutes, Shakespeare slowly disintegrates as he banters with his actor pal Richard Burbage (Jeremiah Kissel, terrific as usual), who wants him to return to work. He hectors a lawyer, Francis Collins (Billy Meleady), to rewrite his will to punish Anne.
Shakespeare also loudly doubts that he’s the father of their twins, Hamnet — who died young — and Judith (a strong Stacy Fischer), who now insists on marrying a man he finds unacceptable. Turning his anger on her, too, he falls prey to the inheritance-minded flattery of his older daughter, Susanna (Merritt Janson).
Brustein, who founded both the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, is now a distinguished scholar in residence at Suffolk, which owns the Modern. Suffolk co-produced the world premieres of the two other parts of the trilogy: “The English Channel” (exploring Shakespeare’s relationship with the Dark Lady of the sonnets, from whom he contracted his disease) and “Mortal Terror” (on the Gunpowder Plot and “Macbeth”).
Shakespeare returned to Stratford for the last four years of his life (1612-1616), but in “The Last Will,” Brustein and director Steven Maler skillfully collapse the events into a fast succession. The bare-bones set by Eric Levenson and expressionistic sound by David Remedios heighten the dream-play atmosphere.
With his handsome, angular features and strong physicality, Burrows (the artistic director of Actors’ Shakespeare Project) looks more likely to wield a sword than a quill, more like one of Shakespeare’s battlefield heroes than the Bard himself. But he plays Shakespeare’s descent with both power and restraint, as the voices of his characters begin to crowd reality out of his fevered brain.
Shakespeare rages against Anne’s betrayal and Judith’s disloyalty, and insists to Burbage that he will never write or act again. He even evicts a tenant farmer who has fallen behind in his rent, a seemingly heartless act.
Where, Burbage asks, has Shakespeare’s mercy gone, his compassion?
And that’s the problem with this otherwise involving play. Brustein’s Shakespeare is so consumed by his illness, or more accurately the darkness it summons in him, that he’s not quite recognizable as the playwright who laid bare the souls of Lear and Othello. His humor and his empathy, his profound understanding of human nature, all seem to have deserted him, leaving only a bitter shell.
What’s missing is what the Bard could have supplied, a soliloquy in which Shakespeare faces the terrible irony of what he has become, and from which his particular suffering could come to seem universal.
Instead the voice of compassion belongs to Anne, who does not damn Shakespeare, even as he rails against her, and comforts him at the end. Adams portrays her as a strong woman who has learned to live with what life hands her, and she’s given a better shake here than in most historical accounts.
It is left to Burbage to address the Bard’s legacy, with a final, perfect, heartbreaking gesture.