Patrick Page knows Shakespeare can be scary.
The son of a theatre educator, Page grew up surrounded by the Bard’s language, wandering around the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a toddler while his father performed. It isn’t hyperbole to consider the heightened language of Shakespeare an additional native language for Page, serving as his constant artistic touchstone. Throughout his celebrated career, he has appeared in the majority of Shakespeare’s works regionally, recently completing a run of King Lear at Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company that became the best-selling Shakespeare production in the venue's history.
Now back in New York, the Tony nominee has again teamed up with Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director, Simon Godwin, to bring his solo show All The Devils Are Here to Off-Broadway’s Daryl Roth Theatre through January 7. It’s all in the name of making Shakespeare less of an intimidating force, and more of an inspiring one.
“My goal with this show is frankly evangelical,” Page says, smiling wryly. “When you love something, the first thing you want to do is share it, right? Say you get the most incredible dish in the world at a restaurant. The first thing you say to your loved one is, ‘Oh, you’ve got to taste this.’ That's how I am about Shakespeare.”
But he's well aware of the densely academic veneer Shakespeare has taken on for some. “I want to see young people embrace the glory of these plays. And in order to do that, they have to understand them.” So he's breaking it down.
Playing on Page’s reputation as one of the great villain actors of the American theatre, All The Devils Are Here carves through the canon to trace the humanity of Shakespeare's antagonists—from the vice-riddled Duke of Gloucester in Henry VI to the revenge-obsessed Caliban in The Tempest. Told chronologically, the solo show allows Page to present some of Shakespeare’s greatest soliloquies, which when combined with Page’s engaging contextual explanations, reveal the evolving power in the Bard’s observations of human nature.
“The journey of the play begins in 1590, when Shakespeare first emerges as a playwright in London, and then moves chronologically through the canon using these particular characters,” Page explains. “These wrongdoers, these malefactors, these outcasts, rogues, scoundrels trace Shakespeare's evolution in his understanding of what a human being is. Our fascination with villains is our curiosity about what a human being is capable of, and what we ourselves might be capable of, were we pushed to the extreme.”
Page sees the current wave of interest in true crime as a continuation of this fascination. “Shows like Dateline can become quite addictive, because it's the unfolding of various aspects of humanity.” While Shakespeare was hardly the first dramatist to explore the extremes of human nature, he markedly pushed forward how empathy was applied to such polarizing figures onstage. “Shakespeare was sort of handed the medieval morality play, which has the tradition of the Vice, a personified sin like greed, envy, lust, jealousy, or rage. Of course, the Vice was the most popular and charismatic character in the play, who got to improvise with the audience and address the audience directly, which became the root of Shakespeare's soliloquies.”
Initially, Shakespeare leaned on the Vice archetype for his villains. “When Shakespeare began writing his first three plays, which were Henry VI, Part 1, 2, and 3, he put in the plays this character, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who is very much a Vice character, but he’s not just ambition for long. He's also a human being who begins to have human characteristics. Slowly, Shakespeare, in his rivalry with Christopher Marlowe, creates Aaron the Moor and Titus Andronicus. And then he goes through a period in his life where he's not able to write plays, because the theatres are shut down by plague, which we all understand these days.” Page laughs, a low rumbling sound. “And he falls in love. He falls in love with a dark-skinned woman, and this sort of rattles him, and shakes him, and makes him understand that the prejudices he grew up with are foolish. And so those characteristics, which he had initially given to characters like Aaron, who is Black, and Richard, who is disabled, Shakespeare now challenges with Shylock, who becomes a fully three-dimensional human being.”
“From that moment on, he begins to build all of these aspects of humanity, eventually giving, in the case of Claudius in Hamlet, a profound sense of conscience. But then he comes up against a brick wall, which is the astonishing and terrifying realization that some people have no conscience whatsoever. And he confronts what we now call a psychopath with Iago in Othello, and that exploration is very dark and very deep. You're looking straight into the face of unmitigated evil. And building on that, he moves later into Macbeth, who was not a psychopath, but who makes a conscious choice to move toward evil. In a way, Macbeth is the climax of Shakespeare's understanding of evil, and he never again writes a play as dark as that, but he never stops wrestling with the cyclical nature of violence and the problem of revenge.”
Developed through feedback from audiences as varied as Shakespearean experts and high school students studying their first play, Page has gone to great pains to make the show as engaging as it is educational. First performed on a bare replica of the Shakespearean Globe stage with minimal lighting, Page has been crafting the play for years. He laughs, saying it has been in development “since the 1980s!” when he was working on a different solo show, Passion's Slaves (which explored the hearts of Shakespeare’s most famous lovers).
Page’s consistent choice to return to his native artistic language is a powerful one, steeped in layers of meaning. Shakespeare is, after all, one of the most physically accessible writers in the English language, with hundreds of thousands of editions of his plays proliferating theatres and school halls across the globe. To unlock his texts is to open a pathway of artistic communication across centuries, going beyond all borders, including that of the human heart. Page hopes to recontextualize Shakespeare’s work for the next generation as a nuanced tool with which to explore empathy and human connection.
“We’re in a tricky moment, culturally,” Page states with great consideration. “People are more inclined to write off other human beings on moral grounds, and their shared humanity takes a backseat.” Page yearns to impart a more complex and empathetic response. “I hope that through these characters, someone might say to themselves, ‘Oh, yes, that's a person like me. That's like me, but under different kinds of pressures or under different kinds of circumstances.’ When I see Claudius, when I see Macbeth, when I see Malvolio, instead of judging them, I get curious. I suppose my wish is that people will be a bit less judgmental, and a bit more curious.”