In What You Will, RSC veteran actor Roger Rees delivers Shakespearean anecdotes, monologues and commentary with buckets of charm, a winning smile and a very special personal touch.
You may remember Rees from such roles as Robin Colcord on Cheers, as The West Wing’s caddish diplomat Lord John Marbury, or as the dashing young hero of the RSC’s 1980 legendary The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby. The chances are you recognise his face from somewhere but can’t quite put your finger on it. Rees doesn’t seem to mind his relative (and I stress relative) obscurity, gleefully sending himself up in a joke about old pal Sir Ben Kingsley getting both the knighthood and the Academy Award – Kingsley and Rees were mute, spear-carrying huntsmen together in their salad days at the RSC, you see.
For this one-man-show Rees has compiled Bard-themed opinions, stories and legends from countless sources, and he channels and performs them with the skill of an old master. He brings the house down with an extract from Dickens’ Great Expectations, whereby the hapless Mr Wopsle takes on the part of The Dane with disastrous results. An old exercise book is frequently consulted, containing such schoolboy errors as “William Shakespeare wrote histories, comedies and tragedies, all in Islamic pentameter.” Rees intertwines this material with turns as Romeo, The Nurse, Richard II and Lear. He even gives us a rendition of the Shakespearian Hokey Cokey. “O proud left foot, that ventures quick within/then soon upon a backward journey lithe…”
Rees weaves expertly in and out of an illustrious history containing the likes of Coward, Olivier, a drunken Duke of Buckingham, Coleridge and Dame Judi Dench. The list is endless and one gets a real sense of the theatrical life-blood that thunders through the artery of time, connecting Shakespeare’s day to the present.
Anyone with a passing appreciation of theatre will observe the similarities with the past and recognise countless traditions. Differences too are stressed; Rees admits today’s industry would be far less inclined to ask a 17-year-old set painter to stand in for a sick actor. This was how Rees got his break, and the revelation that Rees had his first audition for the RSC in the very theatre in which the audience are sitting was so skilfully set-up that it drew loud gasps from across the auditorium. When Rees speaks about his father, demonstrating through performance how their relationship defined the way he played his Hamlet, we feel privy to something uniquely touching.
Rees’ enthusiasm is so infectious throughout this 90-minute examination that you leave the theatre determined to take in as much Shakespeare as possible. The show is at the Apollo theatre for a very limited season, so don’t miss this chance to see an old pro show you how it’s done.