As brilliant a writer as Shakespeare was, he couldn’t have written such amazing roles without great actors to give them life. Some of his greatest roles — Romeo, Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear — were written for Richard Burbage, the most famous actor of his day. Burbage is a character in The Book of Will, Lauren Gunderson’s wonderful new comedy about the creation of the First Folio, and in the current Northlight Theatre production here in Chicago, I have been cast as that great lion of the stage, who remains, 400 years later, arguably one of the greatest Shakespearean actors who ever lived.
The offer could not have been more flattering. “We need somebody we can believe has actually played all these roles!” I was told. Well, I have played all these roles, albeit in highly abridged forms in the Reduced Shakespeare Company productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) and William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) (the latter of which I co-wrote and premiered at the Folger in 2016). I’m comfortable speaking the speech, as ‘twere, but more importantly I understand the bombastic, larger-than-life persona that Burbage is thought to have had, and that the character of Burbage needs to be in order to fulfill his dramatic function in Gunderson’s play.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the King’s Men — the company of actors Shakespeare knew, worked with, and wrote for — have always held a fascination for me and we don’t know as much about them as I wish we did. By all accounts, Burbage was an accomplished swordsman, and I imagine he was handy to have alongside you in a tavern brawl. Many of his greatest characters are offstage during much of Act IV, which suggests he brought much power and energy to his playing of them, so much so that he was probably able to insist that Will always give him a break before Act V. He was a powerful personality, both historically and in The Book of Will, and you need to feel Burbage’s absence when he leaves the stage.
Before rehearsals started I had the great privilege of interviewing Shakespearean author and academic Sir Stanley Wells for an episode of my Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast. Sir Stanley made the observation that Burbage’s roles aged as he did, from Romeo to Lear, suggesting that Shakespeare created characters born of Burbage’s truth rather than being disguises for him to put on. Sir Stanley also observed that, while Burbage might have been a great swordsman, he wasn’t a singer. None of his most famous roles involve singing, and in the one role where he is called upon to sing — Benedict in Much Ado — he makes meta self-deprecating fun of how bad he is.
In The Book of Will, Burbage is very much the alpha male over the other two surviving members of the King’s Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell. This too is supported by the facts as we know them: while Heminges began as an actor, he became the business manager of the King’s Men, and Henry frequently played the characters who lost to Burbage in onstage sword fights (Mercutio, Laertes, etc). But Burbage was the star of the company, a famous and celebrated actor who was also the leading shareholder in both the King’s Men and the Globe theatre itself, and the leader of the plot to take down the Theatre (the theatre built by his father James) board by board, sneak it across the Thames in the dead of night, and rebuild it as the Globe.
Some actors are shy and uncomfortable offstage, but history suggests — and the dramaturgical needs of The Book of Will require — that Burbage was (is) not that kind of actor. He was (is) a larger-than-life personality. So I have to bring both size and truth, and it’s a fun challenge to create both the offstage Burbage — drinking, carousing, commiserating, and almost-brawling — and the moment where Burbage drops in, where the excess goes away and he performs, simply and powerfully, the lines and characters he made famous.