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Big Time

by on 23 April 2021

Last Word

Big Time

by Jonathan Holloway

Blue Fire Theatre, On-Line until 31st December

Review by Mark Aspen

St George’s Day, 23rd April is a day for patriotism.  George of Lydda, a Roman soldier of Greek origin born in Cappadocia, remains a worthy symbol of valour and honour, venerated as a Patron Saint.  St George is believed to have died on 23rd April 303 and, remarkably on the same day of the year, have at least three English kings, Wihtred, King of Kent in 725, Æthelred I, King of Wessex (brother of Alfred the Great) in 871 and Æthelred II “the Unready”, King of England in 1016.   Moreover, 23rd April seems to be a popular day for the demise of poets, William Wordsworth of pleurisy in 1850, and Rupert Brooke in 1915 during the Great War, but the enemy was a tiny mosquito whose infected bite caused fatal sepsis.

However, it should go without saying that the most celebrated poet who died on St George’s Day is William Shakespeare.  As an extra bonus, St George’s Day is traditionally also recognised as the day of his birth.  Nevertheless, to die on this special day extends to other super-star writers not just those from this Sceptred Isle.   Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote, regarded as the first novel, whom the Spanish regard as their own Shakespeare, also died on 23rd April, and in the very same year as Shakespeare, 1616. 

However, through a quirk of the calendar, 23rd April was not the same day for Cervantes and Shakespeare.   It is this quirk that forms the nub of Jonathan Holloway’s radio play, Big Time, commissioned by the BBC in 2016, to mark the 400th anniversary of this occasion, and in which Simon Callow and Nicky Henson played Shakespeare and Cervantes.

David Garrick invented the word Bardolatry in 1749, but I am sure that Spaniards have a corresponding Cervantolatry, a word in Spanish for the same phenomenon.   It may therefore seem odd that the Blue Fire Theatre Company has presented its excellent reworking of Big Time as part of its Famous People You’ve Never Heard Of podcast series. 

The play is a rumbustious knock-about between these titans of literature, an irreverent comedy played out at an intellectual level and catalysed by Shakespeare’s maid, the seventeen year old Regina.  There are plenty of spot-the-literary-reference moments amongst the pseudo-Tudor bawdry. 

We are cued-in to the production being tongue-in-cheek by the crisply clipped enunciation of the introductions.  Then, bang, we are in there, the actors’ voices pushing towards caricature, but just pulling back enough to let the wit of the writing sparkle.

A frail William Shakespeare lies on his deathbed, in a darkened room, tended by the faithful Regina, who at his prompting admits that she is not attracted to him, but finds him attractive, because he is “clever and unusual, but prematurely cadaverous”.  She casually mentions that there is a Spaniard at the door.  The Spaniard enters unbidden, a larger than life character who, unstintingly in his immodesty, introduces himself as Miguel de Cervantes.  “Who is it”, says Shakespeare, “Pantagruel come to life?”  And so the piece becomes Rabelaisian in more senses than one.   Gargantua and Pantagruel, they may not be, but Shakespeare and Cervantes were, and are, certainly giants of literature in their own languages. 

As Cervantes points out, they have more in common than being literary giants.  Both have only one useful arm.  Shakespeare’s recent stroke has left his left side immobile, whereas Cervantes’s left hand had been “shot useless” at the Battle of Lepanto, 45 years earlier.  At 52, Shakespeare is the younger, but at 70 Cervantes boasts that he “still has sex”, implying that Shakespeare would if he could.  Indeed both seem keen on Regina.   “She has a beautiful rack” says Cervantes, admiring the décolleté that Shakespeare had been interested in at the opening of the play.   At this point, the rattled Shakespeare asks for ID, “You could be anyone”.   “Do I look like anyone” is the riposte.  Shakespeare later compares him to a suppurating volcano, which one can suppose supplies the answer.

There is no doubt that both parts have to be played big; and neither actor holds back in this respect.  John Craggs plays a grouchy and hoarse William Shakespeare, world-weary and resigned.    Daniel Wain always plays his roles big, and for Miguel de Cervantes he needs no excuse to let it rip.   Both push the play hard with a swaggering exuberance that teeters towards verbal slapstick.  An aside niggle, the accents seem to have travelled.  Shakespeare’s Warwickshire falling pitch has clearly been sharpened with those years of living in London;   not quite Brummagem to not quite Cockney.  Cervantes’ vowels may have skipped into Castile across the mountains form Portugal.   But after 400 years, how can we know?   They make enjoyable listening anyway. 

Talking bigness, and continuing their comparisons, each compares the other with their biggest characters, Falstaff for Shakespeare and Don Quixote for Cervantes.   Suddenly, they realise that although they cannot speak each other’s language, they can understand each other perfectly.   Shakespeare speaks English, Cervantes speaks Spanish, but no problem; all is clear and moreover Regina the maid can understand both, although pretending at first not to understand the Spanish.   Something is not as meets the eye (or rather ear).

Big Time is set in Shakespeare’s house on 19th April 1616.  Both have one foot in the grave, Shakespeare because he is severely weakened by his stroke, Cervantes because of diabetes or, in his own words, “the pissing evil”.  Shakespeare is due to die on 23rd April 1616, ditto Cervantes.  However, and here is the big BUT, in Spain 23rd April 1616 was six days earlier because the Catholic countries had already changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.   So there is a ten days day gap through which Cervantes is trying to slip to outwit death.   Cervantes idea has been to decamp to a country with the Julian calendar, but now he can also rescue Shakespeare and take him to Spain before 19th April.   This is the abstruse thesis of Holloway’s drama.  (It is a little reminiscent of Frederic in Pirates of Penzance, who has for another 63 years to serve his apprenticeship to the pirates, until his “twenty-first birthday”, because he was born on Leap Year Day.)

“But” the suspicious Shakespeare says “how did you know when you were going to die, unless you contemplated suicide, and how do you know when I am going to unless you are planning murder?”  Cervantes replies that their deaths have been foretold by a necromancer who is also a theatre critic.  (Aren’t they all Mr. Holloway?)   Cervantes adds that the two can understand each other because of a mutual muse.  The muse is of course Regina, who personifies the inevitable.  All is eventually revealed.  Really, I am dying to tell you what is revealed about Regina, but that would be a spoiler. 

Julie Davis excels as the chirpy yet self-contained Regina, and plays her with a certainty that befits the character.  She interprets the role with an attractive brightness, yet still manages to tint the character with a sinister edge.   

Big Time was originally produced as a Radio 4 Play of the Week but Blue Fire’s production lifts it from the Beeb stereotype.  Jacob Taylor’s original music is much in keeping with the period and subject, plus he assisted in Harry Jacobs’ studio recording and production.  Under Steve Taylor the direction the play is compelling and intelligent and runs as a coherent whole, in spite of Jonathan Holloway’s changes in mood and direction.

You see, the play as written cannot make up its mind what it is trying to do.  It starts as a simple coarse comedy as the first third, then veers towards an historical literary analysis in the middle third, yet still keeping the comedy.   Then, via a quirky turn of events involving some dramatic alchemy with sunlight through bottles of urine (don’t ask!), the final third gives a philosophical denouement to the plot.   Despite all these flips of mood, Steve Taylor and his team create a fluent and very engaging, enjoyable and entertaining podcast.

Any more dragons to slay?  Call on Blue Fire.

Mark Aspen, April 2021

Images by Benedetto Pistrucci, Javier Sellers, Eduard von Grützne and John Heysham

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