Sham Poet: Shakespeare's imposter commands the stage in Solemn Mockeries

Joe Hanrahan portrays eighteen characters in Midnight Company's Solemn Mockeries.
Joe Hanrahan portrays eighteen characters in Midnight Company's Solemn Mockeries. Sarah Whitney

Sham Poet: Shakespeare's imposter commands the stage in Solemn Mockeries

Solemn Mockeries
Through January 18 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue.
Tickets are $15 to $20.
314-487-5305 or

Theater is the art of embellished storytelling. An event unfolds, but to relate it properly to an audience you need costumes, lights, a stage and at least one actor to better handle the emotional moments. But what if your story is so good that it needs no such embellishments?

William-Henry Ireland has one of the all-time great stories. He is also one of the all-time great embellishers. Who better than him to tell his story? And so we gather in an English theater in 1826 to hear him explain what he did and why he did it in plain, unvarnished English.

What he did is forge a trunkful of papers, poems and a play under the name "William Shakespeare." Why he did it is in equal measure a tale of hope and of human weakness.

Ireland, played with incisive wit and no small amount of panache by Joe Hanrahan, tells us of his early years. His mother is the family housekeeper, Mrs. Freeman, who was once the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich. His father is the man the earl paid to take in Mrs. Freeman when the earl moved on. Or perhaps William-Henry's father is the earl — the situation is unclear, even to poor William-Henry.

Unloved by his vindictive mother (a woman scorned, and all that) and ignored by his distant in-house father, young William-Henry's only joy comes from the thrice-a-week family reading sessions, at which he and his siblings recite the great works of the English language under Mr. Ireland's direction. Shakespeare is Mr. Ireland's passion, while William-Henry loves Sir Herbert Croft's Love and Madness, a fictionalized account of the real-life forger of medieval poetry, Thomas Chatterton. It seems inevitable that the interests of father and son will become tangled in the near future, at least as William-Henry tells it.

Hanrahan creates all of these other characters through posture and voice, giving each an identifiable mannerism so that it's always clear who is speaking. As William-Henry, Hanrahan gives a dazzling performance. There's a barely concealed chuckle in his voice as he relates his misadventure, as if even he can't believe how he became the greatest literary hoaxer of his age. As the details of his crime flow forth, his eyes belie what he says to great effect. Revealing that Mr. Ireland calls him "Sam," after William-Henry's dead twin brother, he blithely claims he doesn't mind being referred to as the dead twin he never met, but his eyes dim with unspoken pain.

That his family, such as it is, spurs him to make brash pronouncements while also being the source of his discontent is the prosaic truth nestled in the heart of Solemn Mockeries. Unloved and unwanted at home, William-Henry realizes, "If I wanted good fortune, I would have to manufacture it." That he did, repeatedly and in blatant defiance of the law and common sense. But his intention was simply to please his father, who had a mania to possess something with William Shakespeare's signature on it. That this desire culminated in the full production of Vortigern, Shakepeare's "lost" play, with the finest actors of the day on London's grandest stage, is insane and patently unbelievable — and yet it all happened.

Of course, to hear William-Henry Ireland tell it, it was simply a matter of embellishment writ large. The best theater always is. 

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