Story: An ornate chair at stage left and a stately desk at stage right rather starkly adorn the stage for an appearance by one William-Henry Ireland in London in 1826. He’s there to publicly explain how, some 30 year earlier, he fooled the experts and conned the public into believing that he had unearthed a treasure trove of original letters, poems and even a hitherto unknown full-length play by none other than The Bard himself, William Shakespeare.
Driven to forge such documents by an iron-willed and callous father who worshipped Will, young Ireland, not yet 19 years of age, churned out a succession of forgeries in an attempt to quell the senior Ireland’s insatiable thirst for all things Shakespearean. Alas, William-Henry met his Waterloo (even before Napoleon, ironically) when he attempted to mount a full production of Vortiger, which he alleged was written by Shakespeare and only recently discovered under mysterious circumstances.
As the premiere date approached, the show’s director and cast became increasingly suspicious of Vortiger, which certainly read and sounded inferior to The Bard’s accepted canon. When estimable Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone studied a new book of “lost” works by Shakespeare, he accused Ireland of fraud with a blistering dissection of the tome, and the truth was out. Still, William-Henry was driven to produce his ‘masterpiece,’ regardless of what ‘solemn mockery’ may result. Now, three decades later, Ireland returns from self-imposed exile to explain his actions.
Highlights: Rick Creese, a lecturer for writing programs at UCLA, wrote this one-actor work after hearing the true story of notorious Shakespearean forger William-Henry Ireland. It premiered in Los Angeles in 2013 in a production by the Independent Shakespeare Company, which was awarded “Best Period Show” in November at the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York City.
Riding on the coat-tails of that very recent success is a delightful presentation currently being staged by The Midnight Company at Tower Grove Abbey. Midnight’s artistic director, Joe Hanrahan, once again proves adept at handling all the heavy lifting required of a single performer telling a story on stage, even a yarn as bizarre and forlorn as this one.
Other Info: Creese’s script is neatly packaged as two, 45-minute acts sandwiched around a 15-minute intermission. That’s a tidy and sufficient amount of time for Hanrahan to engage his audience with a droll performance as the sad William-Henry, a young man who was deemed too “stupid” to be effectively taught at the private school his father had selected for him in the late 18th century.
Hanrahan also portrays the cold, aloof senior Ireland, a man whose son refers to most often only as “Mr. Ireland,” lacking the comfort and clarity -- and paternal love -- to refer to him as “father” or “papa.” That’s the sort of heart-rending revelation that drives this fascinating but profoundly sad and true tale.
To make matters worse, William-Henry suspects that the flippant tart who keeps Ireland’s house amidst other ‘arrangements,’ is in reality his own mother, who was ‘sold’ to the senior Ireland by none other than the Earl of Sandwich.
Hanrahan glibly calls upon a variety of accidents and affectations in portraying more than a dozen characters in this cautionary tale, which serves effectively to break the monotony of a work performed by a single player. He can be calculating or precious or buffoonish or cruel or convivial, depending upon the character, while always anchored to the central role of the gifted but tortured forger.
Director Sarah Whitney allows Hanrahan plenty of room and time to develop his cadre of characters, which the versatile veteran delivers with finesse and savory style, even sending Hanrahan into the audience briefly. Krista Tettaton provides a bevy of quaint-looking props to help visualize the story, Tyler Duenow adds stark lighting and Taylor Steward dresses William-Henry in an elegant but somewhat foppish period costume, matching his quirky personality.
Truth is stranger than fiction, ‘tis said, and patrons of a certain age may be reminded of Clifford Irving’s 1970s hoax, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, as a modern equivalent. Solemn Mockeries is bizarre and baffling yet intoxicating, the stuff of which troubled dreams may be made.
Play: Solemn Mockeries
Company: The Midnight Company
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: January 10, 11, 17, 18
Tickets: $15-$20; contact 800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.