“Shakespeare, for all intents and purposes, invented the character we now call The Villain,” Patrick Page claims near the beginning of his solo show, presented online by the Shakespeare Theatre Company through July 28th. Speaking in his resonant bass voice and dressed all in black, Page, clearly, knows from villains: His 15 roles on Broadway have included Hades in Hadestown, for which he was nominated for a Tony, as well as The Inquisitor in Saint Joan; The Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark; The Grinch; Brutus; and Scar in The Lion King – the last one, he tells us, is “based on Hamlet’s usurping Uncle Claudius.”
And now he is portraying Claudius and other Shakespearean villains, in “All The Devils Are Here” (the title is taken from a line from The Tempest, spoken by Ariel.) Over the course of some 80 minutes, Page guides us through what he calls the Bard’s “two decade exploration of evil,” going more or less chronologically through his characters: Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Shylock with Antonio, Sir John Falstaff with Hal, Malvolio, Claudius, Iago with Othello, Macbeth (and separately Lady Macbeth), Prospero with Ariel.
Much of the delight of “The Devils” is in the details. Filmed onstage in D.C.’s empty, suitably dark (and, one imagines, chilly) Sidney Harman Hall, Page performs the soliloquies with passion and precision, and is especially impressive in navigating the two-character scenes. One awe-inspiring scene involves in effect three characters: Prince Hal and Falstaff take turns mimicking Hal’s father the King.
But Page’s commentary in-between these performances also draws us in. We learn, for example, that before Shakespeare, the word “villain” just meant a person of “low birth.” Something called the Vice of Covetousness came closest to villainy in pre-Shakespearean morality plays, which was an embodied sin rather than a human character.
Page organizes the show as an argument that Shakespeare’s view of villainy evolved as he grew as a playwright and enlarged his understanding of human nature. His first successes fed the Elizabethan public’s appetite for what Page deems potboilers, with the Bard’s plays featuring the stereotypical characters Richard III, and Aaron the Moor from ‘Titus Andronicus.” Page demonstrates that Aaron was modeled on (stolen from) another stereotype, Barabas from “The Jew of Malta,” written by Shakespeare’s only major rival, Christopher Marlowe, by alternately reciting lines from both plays.
But then Shakespeare changed – because, Page speculates, the plague shut down theaters and forced him to retreat to poetry and introspection, and because he fell in love. So, when he wrote “The Merchant of Venice,” Page argues, “Shylock is the villain of the play, but for the first time in history, he’s a villain whose motivation is so clear, whose psychology is so complex, and whose language is so rich and idiosyncratic, that he changes the way we experience villainy itself. “ He buttresses his argument with a scene where Antonio (the merchant of the title) comes off like a brute and Shylock as the reasonable one, and the wronged party, even as he asks for a contract that if unfulfilled requires a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
I didn’t find everything Page said persuasive. But “All The Devils Are Here” won me over by being two lessons in one, each clarifying and enhancing the other – a lesson in Shakespeare, and a lesson in good acting.
All The Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invent The Villain
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Adapted from the works of William Shakespeare
Written and Performed by Patrick Page
Video production: Jo Kno Media
Film director: Alan Paul
Lighting Elizabeth A Coco
Additional Sound Design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith
Running time: About 80 minutes
Available through July 28, 2021