BURBAGE: The Man Who made Shakespeare Famous

by Liz Richards · August 13, 2014

Ignore the costuming, and Richard Burbage's complaints at the top of Burbage are familiar to any modern-day stage manager or producer: "I have less than one day to prepare the company for the summer tour. One day to oversee the buying of provisions, the packing of the props, costumes, and scripts...One day to…God, there must be something else I’ve forgotten."

The times are different, but the worries are the same. Richard Burbage was the son of a theater owner and became one of the stars of William Shakespeare’s King’s Men. This one-man show takes place backstage at the Globe after a performance of Hamlet. The framing device is a young actor, the unseen Thomas Crab, has outgrown young girl roles and who wants to become a great leading man, and has snuck into Burbage’s dressing room for advice and possibly patronage.

Neil McGarry, the founder and producing artistic director of The Bay Colony Shakespeare Company, plays “the man who made Shakespeare famous.” McGarry’s talent for classical text is evident; the show has minimal staging but it makes no difference as the emphasis is on the words, words, words. Though Burbage is arguably most well-known for originating the role of Hamlet, very little time is spent on that particular production. In fact, the two classical speeches Burbage speaks during the show are not from the roles that made him famous, but from parts he never played: Juliet and Faustus.

I was most interested in this show when it explored the origins and backstories of the classics. It's easy to forget that all plays, even King Lear and Hamlet, come from a group of people getting together and developing an idea they're passionate about. To that end, there were many times I was left wanting to know more about the history and development of the plays, and in particular the relationship between Burbage and Shakespeare. For example, Burbage says he had to convince Shakespeare to let him play Hamlet, since he'd said Burbage was too old and should play Claudius. What happened after that? How did it play out?

To see the origins of a company now held as the gold standard for theater, and hearing them stress about where the next job will be, the long hours, and the little pay, is strangely comforting in the modern indie theater community. We all know that the stars and legends of tomorrow are out there, paying dues and questioning if they have what it takes, but this play shows that even the greats started somewhere.





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