Shakeshafte and other pieces by Rowan Williams


First play by ROWAN WILLIAMS, Lazarus, had its premiere as part of the 24-hour play cycle, Sixty-Six Books, at the Bush Theater in London. As one of 66 Dramatic Responses to the King James Bible, it has stood alongside the work of our finest playwrights. His elegiac tone perfectly matched my mood as, giddy with pleasure and fatigue, I approached my 16th hour of theater.

Published here in a collection of three pieces, it reveals more complex ideas than we could have appreciated during its short passage on stage. Three people whose lives have been touched by grief respond to the words of John 11. The time is both the first and the 21st century; the place is both the tomb of Lazarus and a crematorium. Waterfalls of rain. The questions remain unanswered.

The other plays did not receive full professional productions, with the extensive rehearsal room development creating a stage-worthy storyline. The flat roof of the world tells a love story between the poet David Jones, traumatized by his experience in the trenches of the First World War, and Petra Gill, sexually abused by her father, the artist Eric Gill. They are “two people bleeding quietly and waiting for ambulances”. Dreamlike and serious in its discussion of art, Catholicism and broken idealism, the piece has moments of beauty, which emerge from stretches that test both comprehension and concentration.

shakeshaft is inspired by eight years during which there is no information on the life of William Shakespeare. One conjecture is that he went north and took up Roman Catholicism under the name Will Shakeshafte. The play supposes an encounter between the libidinous young man and the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion, traveling in disguise. They say if you can know that the cause you invest your life in is a truth worth dying for.

The image of a spider pouring out worlds from within itself is memorable, both for a writer and in anticipation of Campion’s terrible death. This too is a game of ideas, densely spun. Its most theatrical moment is the seduction of a young woman who mistakes a playwright’s desire to be inside her character for a more basic need, interposed with Campion’s marking of Ash Wednesday: “Remember know that you are dust.”

My gut feeling is that, with their monologue-heavy structure and complex metaphors, these pieces work better on the page than on a stage. I would be delighted if an imaginative director proved me wrong.

Peter Graystone is a lay formation officer in the Diocese of Southwark. His latest book is
All’s Well That Ends Well: From Dust to Resurrection — 40 Days with Shakespeare (Canterbury Press, 2021) (Books, 21 January).

Shakeshafte and other parts
rowan williams
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