Feature Documentary Reviews

Shakespeare: The Truth Behind the Name (2020) – 0.5 stars

Director: Robin Phillips

Writer: Christina di Marlo (aka Robin Phillips)

Running time: 1hr 39mins

I am writing today to inform you of one of the greatest myths of the modern world. Something that, in spite of mountains of proof to the contrary, continues to fly in the face of common sense. The truth has been staring us in the face all these years. How could the so-called experts have missed the glaring evidence?

AMERICA DOES HAVE A CLASS SYSTEM!

Bizarrely, there are huge numbers of people who can travel past slab city on the way to slavishly attend to the needs of their bosses in a golden tower-block, but who still believe they need to travel to the United Kingdom to get a taste of ‘class-based society.’ True, ours is a lot older, with more antiquated and absurd quirks to enjoy as a result – but at its core, America has just as much enshrined power and privilege on offer.

Just because it is an apparently ‘young nation’ doesn’t mean certain groups of people haven’t had the time to accrue enough power and wealth to essentially be untouchable. With this, over the years, comes a certain set of assumptions and prejudices justifying the position of the ruling class – and defending it against scrutiny. There must be a reason why those sat on mountains of wealth should be shielded from taxation, or having to pay their employees a living wage, or should ascend to the most powerful office on the planet, regardless of countless bankruptcies. They have a better work-ethic. They are thrifty. They study harder. They are better at taking risks. They are innately better people.

One of these prejudices lies at the heart of Robin Phillips, aka Christina di Marlo’s protracted one-woman show Shakespeare: The Truth Behind the Name. Much like the conspiracy feature Anonymous – with its narration by an audibly sneering Derek Jacobi – the most important assertion here is that poor people are useless illiterates, without exception. The son of a glover (a favourite term slung about by both films) could never have become a literary genius whose works would be celebrated for centuries after his death. No, those plays could only have been the production of noble blood.

Brought to life by one crooning, gurning member of the US upper-crust, the film repeatedly scoffs at mountains of academic arguments that Shakespeare was who he says he was, instead preferring to consult with the rich and famous. After all, someone doesn’t need to study something their whole life to offer a valid opinion in America’s class system – net-worth trumps everything. Sigmund Freud might have been a coke-fiend who, whatever you think of his work, was not a stickler for empirical detail – but his conclusion Shakespeare was a fraud is cast iron, because he made fat stacks of cash, and established a wealthy family dynasty. James Shapiro has only been on BBC Four a couple of times though, so bugger his opinions on the matter.

Now, before we get into things, in my role as a critic, I have to assess this film according to its quality, as well as its content. The problem here is I worry it is going to be read as an ad hominem attack on the filmmaker to discredit their ‘theories.’ Of course, the film is prefaced with a prediction this is exactly what would happen – a handy way to deflect critiques on the quality of the filmmaking, or the supposed information it contains. People who have these dangerous, radical ideas are often branded crackpots by Big Shakespeare. So, if anyone has anything but glowing praise for this film, you know why.

The thing is, Robin Phillips/Christina di Marlo is being more than a little crafty here, because she knows full-well it is impossible to discuss this film without talking about its writer, director and star. That is the nature of a one-person show. However, what I am about to say should not be read as me trying to discredit someone I disagree with. There are films which deal with these theories without centring on one utterly grating performance. At least in Anonymous for instance, there are other on-screen presences to distract from how contemptuous Derek Jacobi is. Here, we have no window-dressing beside a self-indulgent American thespian, chuckling haughtily at the idea of poor people gaining literacy – while choppy editing, pillaged Google Images results and stock music all make the huge run-time increasingly tiresome.

Beyond the technical details, understanding the writer-director-star can also point to why the glover’s son writing plays is so alien to this film. As her own biography boasts, of course, the fact that she was raised the daughter of a prominent American Diplomat in Europe, and was educated in Embassy schools, ensured she had the experience and confidence to direct her own career. She also studied with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Webber Douglas Academy in London – once one of the leading drama schools in Britain, which produced plummy-voiced alumni including Julian Fellowes and Hugh Bonneville.

Phillips/di Marlo is of course not to blame for being born into privilege. However, she certainly played a role in maintaining her mental disconnect with anyone below her station. Many of her meandering layers of evidence hinge on the particularities of the English ruling class in the days of Shakespeare – including the use of pseudonyms to pen dangerous work. This is a tradition she has consciously tapped into by including her own pseudonym.

Robin Phillips is credited as the film’s director, but just to make sure we are in on the cunning ploy, she determines to credit the actress on display as Christina di Marlo (aka Robin Phillips). It is not so much a sly wink as a mallet to the skull – whatever you want to call her, Phillips/di Marlo wants us to know that she identifies with the aristocracy in this story, come what may. Phillips/di Marlo further pushes this point by decking herself out in the clobber of a Tudor noble. Right down to the designer brand glasses. Because what self-respecting Lord or Lady would leave the house without their Marc Jacobs specs?

As things progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to listen to the speculation being offered up. Not so much because I am unused to online videos stating spurious speculation as fact, but because this video-essay lasts almost 100 minutes. Throughout this running time, the intense swells of the History Channel soundtrack never die down – and while it is bad enough for a film’s overbearing score to tell us how to feel, it is constantly telling us we should be gaping in awe at every revelation. Meanwhile, Phillips/di Marlo’s simpering delivery never errs in its patronising down-talk. Does she think highly of the audience she is pitching this too? As she all-too-often ends her sentences, I don’t think soooooo.

Returning to the risible nature of the arguments on display, both the music and the narrator’s irksome tone swiftly run out of anywhere to go when we are informed Shakespeare didn’t complete grammar school thanks to his father’s mis-dealings. That this would still have left Shakespeare with some education under his belt is brushed past – it is continued to assume he wouldn’t have learned to read, and wouldn’t have encountered Latin lessons or the works of greats like Chaucer. Aside from the fact these subjects were on the curriculum, noting Chaucer is interesting – as a literary figure who literally showed the class structure of England was beginning to evolve, centuries before the birth of Shakespeare. For more on that, I would recommend checking out the Mark Steel Lectures.

On top of this, other contextual matters are similarly kicked to the curb when they do not fit with the narrative. The spelling of Shakespeare’s name is different to the one that appears signing his plays, we are told, meaning over time we have confused a humble tradesman with the pseudonym of a great artist. But as anyone who has ever gone back further than five generations in their family history will know, people regularly had several spellings of their family name. Meanwhile, English spelling wasn’t standardised for more than a century after Shakespeare’s death, with the advent of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary – leaving a lot of spelling down to how you felt on the day.

Even if we do take the assertion Shakespeare could not read or write at face value, however, it still does not prove anything. Self-educated individuals have found ways to rise to prominence time and again throughout history. Abraham Lincoln’s parents were both illiterate, and received no more than 12 months of formal education in his childhood, but read as much as he could when not working on the family farm. Meanwhile, even functionally illiterate individuals have an imagination and a memory. Who is to say a play cannot be written by dictation? Then of course, there is the fact that the ruling elite is famously riddled with incest and illiteracy itself – Donald Trump and his chinless spawn can scarcely speak in sentences, let alone sign their own names with more than a scrawl, yet we should just assume this class of people is man-kind’s engine-room of art and ingenuity.

But we are getting into whataboutery, and when discussing conspiracy theories like this, that usually ends up proving a bottomless pit, so, I digress. The question I must consider at the end of all this is, who exactly is this for? If you are a theatre connoisseur, the performance is (perhaps fittingly) a long way from being Shakespearean. If you enjoy films, the excruciating pacing, slap-dash cut-and-paste editing, low-rent imagery and cringeworthy costume choices will bar you from being immersed at any point in this 99-minute monologue. If you are genuinely interested in investigating the merits of both sides of this story, only supporting evidence is sourced, making further reading afterwards a one-sided affair. At the same time, this theory is hundreds of years in the making itself – it has been done before, and better.

So why has this film been made now. The saying “a fool and his money are soon parted” might be a clue. Our filmmaker never positions herself as a humble voice of the people. Just like people pushing the ideas of a fake moon landing, or vaccines causing autism, you might suspect this film was not just made to set the record straight. You might suspect there were a book, a theatre ticket, a DVD to peddle. You might think that as the right tone of condescension means there is always some wallet-with-legs willing to trust your judgement, a filmmaker (especially one with social-standing to afford them some clout) might want to cash in on that. You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.   

As much as ‘alternative theorists’ like to talk about the Shakespeare Myth Industry as perpetuating lies they can dine out on, there is a much bigger, more lucrative conspiracy industry that is booming right now. In this context, some people might speculate that Phillips/di Marlo were some kind of social-class confidence trickster. Certainly, it would be wrong of me to claim definitively that the filmmaker had any one particular motive behind this film. If that were to be the case, however, it would be a rather ugly, insidious grift, weaponising the classism still present in society on either side of the Atlantic. Know your place. Right to the point where you disbelieve anyone like you could produce anything of note.

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