The Real William Shakespeare … as Told by Christopher Marlowe, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

While, as far as I am aware, there are no complete Shakespeare plays being performed on this year’s Fringe, a raft of shows reimagines his works and biography. Captivating titles like “Nearly Lear”, “Macbeth by the Sea”, “Hello, The Hell: Othello” are on offer.

Present this year is the perennial Shakespeare authorship question, inspiration for a catalogue of academic works, films and plays. Claims that the writer of the Shakespeare canon might have been the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, Emilia Bassano, or Christopher Marlowe continue to fascinate critics and audiences alike.

“The Real William Shakespeare … as Told by Christopher Marlowe”, playing at Greenside @ Riddles Court, tackles the authorship question head-on. And interestingly, Canadian dramatist Shaul Ezer presents us with a brand-new candidate, the Moroccan diplomat, Ahmed Bilqasim, who in 1589 made a state visit to England, surrounded by merchants from the Barbary Company.

Bilqasim’s mission was supposedly to propose an Anglo-Moroccan alliance against the Spanish. There is no further evidence, however, as to what the man actually did while he was in England, so Ezer has been able to give free rein to his imagination. In a conversation, he told me how his background as a Canadian, with Iraqi ancestry, had led him to the complex questions of Shakespeare’s nationality and identity, standing at the heart of his play.

The action opens as Laura, a research student in Renaissance literature, is frantically trying to complete her thesis when she is visited by Christopher Marlowe’s ghost. Marlowe, who is thought to have been sent abroad by Elizabeth I as a spy to infiltrate groups of English catholics, tells her how he met Bilqasim on his travels and that the man wrote in Arabic what we generally think of as Shakespeare’s plays. It has been Marlowe’s task to translate them.

Laura has another surprise visitation, Bilqasim himself, who makes the more plausible claim that his plays are not originals but draw on well-known stories that circulated in Europe and beyond. The eccentric, flamboyant figure of Marlowe, though, overshadows all the other characters, talking and singing his way from beginning to end. Elizabethan and original songs and music such as, “I am the mind behind the rhyme. I scribbled and I died, before my time.” punctuate the dialogues, giving the piece a resounding brio.

Jen McGregor’s staging is excellent, with actor Kirsty Eila McIntyre (Laura as well as several male characters), playing multiple roles while moving swiftly between past and present. The musical numbers are likewise deftly woven into what is a colourful, highly entertaining theatrical tapestry.

The play’s focus on authorship and identity inevitably leaves many questions unanswered. What is undeniably fascinating is Ezer’s choice of Bilqasim, one of a cluster of Muslims who visited Elizabethan and Jacobean England, bringing with them their culture and religion.

The show is produced by Matchmaker, a company found by Eger in 2012. The company’s mission is to stage Canadian new writing and nurture theatrical links between Canada and Scotland. For this production, the director and talented cast are Scotland-based.