“Effervescent” is not the first adjective that Shakespeare brings to mind, but Irene Kelleher’s female incarnation of the Bard is certainly that. Everything about this production is vibrant, from Ian Wild’s fast-paced script and equally punchy direction, to the eponymous character’s silk doublet and hose, which are gaily slashed with pink. Kelleher clearly delights in her role and this likeable actress carries the audience along for the ride with exuberant ease and copious laughs. The palpable energy thus felt in the room is what sets Mrs Shakespeare aside from most one-handers – or indeed most shows – at the Fringe.
Kelleher’s “William” (named so by her Shakespeare-fanatic parents) believes herself to be the Bard reincarnated 400 years or so after he penned the Danish Play, and so sets out during the course of this one to redress the balance between the genders in general, and Ophelia and Hamlet in particular. Scratching feverishly at paper with a pink feather quill between sessions on her therapist’s couch, she gleefully declares that she has, ‘given all the male characters menial tasks to perform offstage’, before effortlessly donning each of these personalities in turn with mesmerising skill. It is only when William starts to view his/her real-world acquaintances as fellow Elizabethans – including her therapist as Shakespeare’s doomed literary rival, Christopher Marlowe – that the seams of this hitherto jolly device start to unravel to manic effect.
Despite its delightfully frivolous air, there are serious undertones to this play. As well as the feminist touch, mental illness is an increasingly prevalent current which seems all the darker for being played for laughs, though perhaps a little over-simplistic at times. But the meat of the play lies less in its depiction of what is, and more in its joyful exploration of what could be. It is never made completely clear whether William is in fact delusional, and Wild and Kelleher between them leave us with a nugget of hope that maybe, just maybe, (s)he is not. Either way, this is a clever and spirited play that is rather different from most, and all the better for it.