The front of house hoarding that beckons you into the Union Theatre for Fair Em makes no less than three references to Shakespeare, but when a show’s main selling point is that it wasn’t in fact written by him, it sets an impossibly and unnecessarily high standard. It was misattributed to the bard by one of Charles II’s librarians and thus occupies a place in the Apocrypha where it has languished unproduced for over 400 years. But not even Phil Willmott’s normally sure touch can disguise the weaknesses of the play with a production that misfires on several levels.
The plot intertwines two love stories. First is well-to-do maiden Em who, when her father is banished by the new king, is forced to slum it as a miller’s daughter far from home and fends off the amorous attentions of the local suitors through feigning disabilities. And then there’s William the Conqueror, determined to claim Blanch, the Princess of Denmark for his wife but on finding she’s less comely than her portrait suggested, tries it on with her friend who is a Swedish princess and already entangled with the ambassador. Jealousies, deceptions and a lack of bread threaten the equilibrium of all as the play then gathers to a final scene of unparalleled unlikeliness.
Given the fancifulness of the plotting, it is perhaps unsurprising that Willmott has opted for a rather playful style, but it is one which doesn’t go far enough to embrace the ambience of silly fun that might have made this a passable romp. Too much of the acting is possessed of an earnestness that the material simply doesn’t deserve and is scarcely reached in any case, so it consequently falls far short of the mark comedy-wise. And the writing, whomever is responsible for it, never comes close to reaching the sublime heights of Shakespeare, which wouldn’t be quite so much of a problem if the foyer wasn’t full of mentions of his name and instinctively drawing those comparisons.
Philip Lindley’s design initially looks effective with its etching of London but erroneously suggests a weird geographical specificity for a play that hops repeatedly between Denmark and the north, as well as the capital. The introduction of an English folk chorus to intersperse the action adds a certain brightness but too many of the songs are a distraction from the play rather than an enhancement of the narrative or mood. And so tonally, the piece never quite sits comfortably in one place or another and does little to suggest that it won’t be another 400 years before Fair Em is seen again.