When That I Was – Review

When That I Was...

When That I Was

May 24 to June 3, 2012

Vertigo Theatre



While I have no idea why The Shakespeare Company decided to presently remount their 2008 award-winning production of When That I Was, I am immensely grateful that they did. Not living in Calgary at the time of the initial production and not being privy to its subsequent cross-Canada tour, I completely missed what I now know is one of those rare and elusive theatrical moments – A solo show where both the performance and the play can be declared wonderfully remarkable.

When That I Was tells the story of a former child actor in William Shakespeare’s theatre company named Jack Rice (Christopher Hunt).  The play takes place in the creative black hole of 17th century Puritanical England. By decree, all the theatres have been shut down and Jack therefore is out of a job and living as a homeless man. On a stormy night he takes shelter in an old run down building only to realize that it was once the theatre he performed in with Shakespeare as a boy. Thus begins his 90-minute 2-act monologue that not only tells the story of his boyhood days on the stage, but also provides snapshot moments of Shakespeare’s personal and creative life.

Characters in Shakespeare’s world such as his benefactor, the Earl of Southhampton, his wife and mistress, his son Hamnet (yes that’s spelled correctly) Queen Elizabeth and King James, all make an appearance in the play either as stories told to us by Jack or through flashback sequences fully performed by Hunt. To say that these snippets provide us with a juicy and interesting back story to the great writer, would be an understatement. From the way When That I Was tells it, the story of Shakespeare himself could have held court amongst his plays.

Alongside this insider historical narrative is woven the story of Jack himself told in a similar combination fashion of direct relaying and flashback scenes. From his early days with the company as just a young orphaned boy to his glory days of playing the heroines in Shakespeare’s grandest shows to his outgrowing and out drinking the ability to perform on stage, the audience is just as riveted to Jack’s story as they are to that of the more famous Shakespeare.

Part of the credit for this must go to the beautiful writing of John Mortimer and Edward Atienza who give us a script rich with imagery, emotion and language that mellifluously echoes the Shakespearean tongue while softening it just enough to make it friendly to the ears of a modern audience.

But the words in a script only truly live up to their potential if they are put into the hands of those that can do it justice, and plenty of justice is done in this resoundingly good production. No one deserves more credit for this than Christopher Hunt, who by my rough count takes on ten roles in this play and offers up an inspired performance for each. Whether playing the old Jack or his younger boyhood self, the other theatre company members, Kings and Queens and even Shakespeare himself, Hunt becomes more than simply a master story-teller. Through the force of his actorly talent, he creates mini worlds for us to see and doesn’t jar us when the view is finished and another character takes over. Hunt’s thoughtful portrayals leave breathing room for resonance and his obvious joy in this production is infectious.

Behind the writing and the performance are equally superb elements. At intermission I emailed a colleague of mine raving about the set design and lighting in the show. Both brilliantly mood-setting yet not overly intrusive in a ‘see how clever I can be” kind of way, Terry Gunvordahl’s look and feel of this production provides the perfect punctuation without intruding on or taking away from the action onstage. It’s truly an alluringly haunting design that felt immensely lush in its ability to evoke.

The final kudo must go to Director Vanessa Porteous for her stunning staging and ability to make the play feel populated with just one actor. The scenes between Shakespeare and his son Hamnet alone are worthy of a directorial award for their ability to illustrate and devastate. Moving the play along at a fair speed yet trusting in her actor and script enough to allow pauses to linger, Porteous gives us a show that both entertains and respects the sophistication of its audience.

Entertainment and respect. My Holy Grail of excellent theatre.


For the guys and the girls – It’s like an intelligent and juicy reality-show highlight reel of Shakespeare’s life with fabulous acting and beautiful writing. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – the language might scare you away at first as the dialogue does sound Ye Olde English. But give it a couple of minutes and the acting and compelling story will draw you completely in. SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – A great performance where you don’t have to say, “yeah but the play wasn’t so hot”. Note the design, the direction and enjoy the fullness of the experience. SEE IT

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