Shakespeare’s Will

Old St Paul's, Wellington

23/04/2016 - 23/04/2016

Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

26/02/2011 - 02/03/2011

Auckland Fringe 2011

Production Details

Following successful runs in Prague and Hong Kong – now appearing in NZ at The Basement for 4 performances only! 

“Sampson fleshes out her character with a commitment rarely seen…her portrayal is strong, humble and moving.” ****TimeOut Magazine HK

“Artfully staged…Sampson holds the audience in her sway.” – Prague Post Czech Republic

Cast: Suzy Sampson 

So who knew Shakespeare had a wife and three kids? 

This is the story of Anne Hathaway, who at 26, met, fell in love with and got knocked up by a then-18-year-old William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Will falls somewhere between imagined history and unauthorised autobiography. The writing is so good that you question where the truth lies and the fiction begins in earnest.

The known facts of Anne’s life are precious and few. It is known that long before the Bard died in 1616, Hathaway was already a widow – a “theatre widow” left behind by a husband who spent most of his time in London, unwittingly making stage history. She bore him three children, lived most of her life in Stratford-upon-Avon and was notoriously given a rotten deal in the Will. 

Thiessen uses the reading of the will as a pretext to enter the psyche of a woman who is recognisably Elizabethan but thoroughly modern. His Hathaway is a prototypical cougar and a resourceful, dutiful mother, and her story is a celebration of a life unbowed by tragedy and unapologetic in the face of public scorn.

Vern Thiessen received The Governor General’s Literary Award, Canada’s highest honour for playwriting, in 2003. His plays have been performed across Canada, the US and Europe.

Suzy Sampson, is a New Zealand born actress trained at LAPA and RADA in London and TVI Studios in Los Angeles. She has over 10 years experience in Theatre, TV, Film and Radio. She is Artistic Director of Twice as Good Productions and is delighted to be returning home with this play. 

DATES: Feb 26 at 10pm, Feb 28 at 8.30pm, March 1 at 10pm and March 2, 2011, at 5.30pm
PLACE: The Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Avenue. Auckland City
TICKETS available from: 
or The Basement Box Office on day of performance  



“Sampson delivers a riveting performance and builds an emotionally  compelling portrait of Shakespeare’s enigmatic wife”  NZ Herald News  


“Artfully staged, Sampson holds the audience in her sway” Prague Post


“Sampson fleshes out her character with a commitment rarely seen…her portrayal is strong, humble and moving.”  4 Stars – TimeOut  HK  


At The Pumphouse Theatre, Auckland
March 31st -April 2nd 2016, 8pm 
Tickets from


Old St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington
on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death
April 23rd 2016, 8pm

Adults: $25.00 | Students: $20

Theatre , Solo ,

An absorbing and timely tale

Review by John Smythe 24th Apr 2016

What better way to mark the quadricentennial of Shakespeare’s death than to engage with a play called Shakespeare’s Will – performed in the Gothic Revival ambience of Old St Paul’s: a Colonial timber structure with back-lit stained-glass window tableaux that take us back a couple of thousand years. As with Will’s plays, his wife Anne Hathaway’s lesser-known story resonates through time and space to spark recognition and empathy in all who bear witness to it.  

The will Bill (as she calls him) left is indeed what the play foreshadows and ends with. En route, however, from their market-place meeting – she’s 26, he’s 18 – to his death at almost 52, it is his wilfulness in pursuing his career and neglecting his wife and children that informs the form and pressure of Anne’s flashback-laced monologue.

Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen confesses to having played “fast and loose with the will and its meaning”, using it “as a springboard for my own imagination and artistic goal – to explore the journey of a woman who faces adversity, rises above it and ultimately rekindles life in herself.” In this he emulates Shakespeare, the consummate springboard exponent, although Thiessen confines himself to prose, amusingly making Anne eloquent and ‘Bill’ monosyllabic, in conversing with – and later writing to – her, at least. It’s a good joke to call him “a man of few words.”  

Thiessen does reveal Will’s early proficiency with the quill by inserting the relatively clumsy ‘Sonnet 145’, aligning with the theory that this was written for Anne, as proved by the pun on Hathaway in the final couplet:
    ‘I hate’ from hate away she threw,
    And saved my life, saying – ‘not you.’ 
Apart from his reading that aloud, “One day I shall write better,” is the longest sentence we hear Will speak to Anne.

With well-centred introspection and quiet wit in a good West-Midlands accent, Suzy Sampson (NZ-born, London-, LA- and NYC-trained) draws us into Anne’s reality as a strong-willed woman who goes and gets pregnant to the fresh-faced young son of a glove-maker. There is insight and humour in her vocal depictions of Bill, her long-suffering father and her inquisitive children – Susanna and the twins, Judith and Hamnet – each with a distinct personality.

Changes of frock from black to green and back to black, and time in her white undergarments too, vary the visuals in the simple setting. As directed by Robert Tsonos (also Canadian), there is a bit too much purposeless wandering back and forth across the stage for my liking but it does allow for points to be emphasised through stillness.

From time to time pen-and-wash pictures of late 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon are back-projected, somewhat randomly, behind the table and chair. Sudden switchings of lighting states – usually cued by Anne’s clicking fingers – signal changes in time and place. Some sound-effects, like the baby crying behind us as she tries to soothe it in front of us, are also a bit disconcerting but may be forgiven for a one-night-stand in a venue not normally purposed for performance.

Sampson’s singing seems tentative and lacking in confidence. Maybe the idea is to convey introspection but the loud canned music makes the inaudibility of lyrics frustrating. Maybe they could be treated as soliloquies, played direct to the audience – and acapella, even. 

What endures is the evocation of how Anne copes materially and emotionally over the decades Will is off pursuing his vocation in London. Always owning her own choices and never playing the victim, although she does wish the children could know their father as more than a portrait, she is the epitome of resilience and tolerance – not least because she balances acceptance of his semi-secret lover (the young man addressed in sonnets 1-126) with the odd passing romp with some fellow herself.

Her bête-noir is Bill’s sister, Joan, who is constantly urging Anne to read the will. Assuming she knows its contents, we see her as being the “bitch” Anne says she is – and this mutual animosity falls with the playwright’s ‘dramatic licence’.

So too does his treatment of the death of Hamnet, aged 11. Thiessen does contextualise it accurately within time the Black Plague swept London and its surrounding towns, seeding the possibility of infection via a rat Hamnet catches and starts to dissect. But it is a trip to the beach, through towns where the dead are being burned, where an idyllic time spent contemplating the vast horizon and creating a portrait of Will in the sand is subverted by the boy’s drowning.  

Knowing Shakespeare remained in London for ten more years, writing 15 to 19 more plays (depending on which you ascribe to him; many of which are purported contain references to his family tragedy), it does seem odd that this play implies Will retired from the theatre soon after Hamnet’s death. If this is to reinforce the implication that Anne is short-changed by Bill’s will because he blames her, it’s a dodgy bit of dramaturgy.

Nevertheless Shakespeare’s Will tells an absorbing and timely tale that is well worth contemplating. It deserves many more performances in this commemorative year.


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Quietly compelling

Review by Nik Smythe 27th Feb 2011

For the gentle recounting by one Anne Hathaway of Stratford, of her life as Shakespeare’s dutiful wife, a simple set creates a suitable atmosphere: Small wooden table with crimson velvet cloth, chair, lantern, and an unassuming paper scroll, being the title prop. Three long rolls of paper hung down the back wall give contrast as well as providing the surface for a handful of scene-setting visual projections. 

I couldn’t locate credits for the production designer, nor the director, both of which warrant favourable mentions. For New Zealand born actress Suzy Sampson it’s something of a homecoming, having trained and worked abroad for over ten years, and she’s brought a piece of the old world back to share with us courtesy of Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen’s pleasing script.

As Hathaway, sole performer Suzy Sampson is elegant, gentle, nice like Judy Bailey with a well-bred Elizabethan accent (and a slight Welsh lilt?)… She relates her memories directly to the man himself: ‘Bill’, her recently departed husband whose last will and testament lies unread, still rolled up on the table. 

From their first meeting, through a shotgun wedding due to accidental pregnancy, two more children and a relatively blissful early marriage, we soon reach the pivotal scene, which has Bill transfer to the big city for a now legendary life in the theatre. Almost overnight he’s become the archetypal absent father, and Anne more or less loyally (within the terms of their open marriage) struggles through more than two decades of virtual solo parenting.

For the most part Sampson’s Anne doesn’t really relive the events she describes; rather she delivers her tale in a manner that seems somewhat rehearsed for what’s supposed to be an impromptu recollection of her life with, and without, her famous husband. 

Nonetheless the story is quietly compelling, and in two scenes with her children at the seaside she becomes noticeably more emotionally connected to the moment. Also I’m ultimately impressed by her subtle brilliance in the way she seemed significantly older near the end than she did at the beginning, with no prosthetic assistance. 

Her modestly sumptuous gowns fit nicely (so to speak) with the piece, although the Basement’s technical shortcomings such as projector machines running and noise outside are occasionally off-putting. Sampson’s voice is quite soft in theatrical terms and the excessive volume of the music bed when she sings some illustrative songs of the era all but drowned the lyrics out.

Call me a pedant but probably the most distracting issue for me was the beehive matches used to light the lantern. I can’t help thinking if proper tapers were used it would greatly enhance the sense of period by elimination of the anachronism.

This review kindly supported by The James Wallace Arts Trust

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