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Shakespeare & Beyond

Playing Richard Burbage

Austin Tichenor as Richard Burbage
Austin Tichenor as Richard Burbage
Austin Tichenor as Richard Burbage

Richard Burbage (Austin Tichenor) and Alice (Dana Black). The Book of Will, Northlight Theatre. Directed by Jessica Thebus. November 9-December 17, 2017. Photo by Liz Lauren.

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.

No pressure.

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.


And you can come see DC actor Mitch Hébert play Richard Burbage in Book of Will at Round House Theater through December 30th!

Marni Coleman — December 14, 2017