Review: 'Solemn Mockeries' is an Historical and Comedic Delight
Everyone has, at one time or another, done something they knew was wrong, only to have it blow up in their proverbial faces. Still, it would be hard to match the exploits of William-Henry Ireland, who in 1795 forged William Shakespeare’s name on a document to impress his father, only to wind up as the greatest forger of Shakespeare’s documents and manuscripts of all time. “Solemn Mockeries,” beautifully acted by Joe Hanrahan, tells the story of the literary thief with style and charm for an evening of intriguing, poignant and humorous theater by The Midnight Company at Tower Grove Abbey.
Hanrahan has the one-man show down to an art form. A year or so ago we marveled at Hanrahan’s performance in “Mistakes Were Made,” so it comes as no surprise that he holds the audience in the palm of his hand in this story and can draw laughs with either a subtle gesture or outright buffoonery. Along the way, Hanrahan plays each of the characters involved in the tale, all 40 or so of them.
The true story is well documented, and playwright Rick Creese sticks to the facts. No need to embellish when the true story is fantastical in itself. Although Ireland was—to put it mildly—an underachiever, he was quite adept at the technical aspects of his forgeries. He mixed a special recipe of ink, which when held close to a candle turned brown and looked aged. The papers he used were the end pages torn from antique books, and he pried old wax seals off old documents and stuck them on his newly forged ones.
As for how he continually acquired these rare documents, and even full-length manuscripts, he made up a mysterious “Mr. H,” who had given him access to an old trunk with permission to take what he wanted. How his father could believe that the mysterious trunk could produce specifically requested documents seems beyond believable, but Ireland points out a fact that we know all too well; people see what they want to see. And that is how he not only passed his fakes off on his father, but fooled high-society and experts alike.
The discovery of the forgeries was inevitable, but it was hastened by Ireland himself when he began to believe that he was actually Shakespeare’s literary heir. So much so, that he writes his own play titled “Vortigern” and attempts to pass it off as an unknown work by the great playwright. When that play gets produced at Drury Lane (a very funny scene with Hanrahan playing all the actors, the audience, the playwright, and everybody else), things come to a head.
Director Sarah Whitney, a frequent collaborator of Hanrahan’s, keeps the story clear and captivating, which is remarkable considering the complexity of the true story—a story that in Hanrahan’s telling seems way too short. An hour feels like fifteen minutes. Nor do you have to be “into” Shakespeare to enjoy the show. The themes of seeking a father’s approval; the struggle against self-mediocrity; as well as being trapped in a bad situation of our own making are universal and timeless.
It’s easy to recommend “Solemn Mockeries.” Hanrahan, a St. Louis stage veteran, has the acting thing down, and the amazing story just might have you rushing home to look up William-Henry Ireland.
“Solemn Mockeries,” produced by The Midnight Company, continues at Tower Grove Abbey through Jan. 18. For tickets and information, visit Brown Paper Tickets, or call 1.800.838.3006.
Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly