Monday, April 25, 2011

The Shakespeare Manuscript by Stewart Buettner.

With William Boyd’s experimental remix of Cardenio in production at Stratford, discussions about authorship and canonicity have once again entered mainstream discourse which makes Stewart Buettner’s fiction The Shakespeare Manuscript a timely publication. When an agoraphobic actress receives a box of her father’s papers she’s amazed to discover within what looks like the original leaves for a prequel to Hamlet and despite her attempts to keep the text under wraps until it can be verified as Shakespearean by experts, before she knows it her old financially insolvent theatre group have decided to put it into production and she’s agreed to play Ophelia. Meanwhile her amnesiatic father isn’t sure he didn’t actually forge the thing and the company producer is desperately attempting to keep the operation running.

Like similar mysteries revolving around such discoveries, the through line which keeps us reading is whether this possible Ur-Hamlet will turn out to be the great discovery. In portraying the rehearsal process, Buettner bravely offers some of his own faux-Shakespearean verse which certainly rings true enough to maintain our suspension of disbelief within the machinery of the plot. He’s under no illusion that he can mimic Shakespeare – in places his characters actively criticise the verse either for being created by a genius in early bloom or wasting themselves on a drippy love triangle between Queen Gertrude and two brothers. Mention of Hamlet Snr’s bloody battle against Fortinbras Snr also has the ring of Titus Andronicus about it, also written in the period Buettner’s fictional experts suggest this would have been scripted.

But such textual discussions sit on the fringes of what’s mainly the back stage story of an actress regaining her inner confidence. April is the best drawn of the characters, her slow progress from a paranoia at greeting anyone who visits her home in her father’s bookshop to being able to step up in front of an audience again is compelling, the clever choice of Vanessa Redgrave as her idol creating a perfect touchstone for the character. The men who help or take advantage of her in between are perhaps slightly over-familiar and fans of In The Bleak Midwinter or Slings & Arrows will see a similar group dynamic in play, albeit with a slightly darker edge. Buettner’s sets his tale in the New York theatre land of the late 80s, when actors weren’t just intoxicated by the thrill of live performance and the brownstone atmosphere of apartments and town houses is beautifully evoked.

[A website about the book has been produced which includes a page from the manuscript and discussion amongst the characters about its authenticity.]

The Shakespeare Manuscript by Stewart Buettner is published by Performance Arts Press. $7.99 paperback, $2.79 Kindle. ISBN: 978-0615462653. Review copy supplied.

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