Being Shakespeare, Trafalgar Studios, London

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The Independent Culture

When he first appeared in this solo show at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, Simon Callow had to spend quite a lot of time offstage explaining to people that he was talking about Shakespeare, not pretending to be the Bard himself.

All the same, I stood in a queue on the Mound behind a pair of American tourists who were sure they were going to be within spitting distance of greatness, touching the hem, as it were, of "the real man behind the legend", as it says in the publicity.

Callow himself, to be fair, conveyed a sense of undiluted awe even as he insisted on the ordinariness of our greatest dramatist. But it remains the singular virtue of Jonathan Bate's text, and now of Callow's much-altered performance, that there is no attempt at hagiography, and no undue astonishment, or disbelief, at the achievement of the plays.

Shakespeare was the son of a glove-maker in the small market town of Stratford-upon-Avon where he went to the local grammar school, married at the unusually early age of 18, and fell into the London theatre as a source of much-needed income by working as an actor and helping other dramatists finish their plays.

He learned about the language of politics and power in school, as all boys did, while studying rhetoric. He learned about human frailty and loss in the death of his own son. And he learned about the natural world in the surrounding fields and forests, "Shakespeare Country" as it's now called.

Callow expounds all this, and more, in a dark suit, moving carefully around a simple set, speaking the verse as beautifully as he has ever done, with a sort of downbeat demeanour, as if in deliberate riposte to critics and audiences who have found his puppyish enthusiasm and bombastic style too overwhelming in the past.

Using the Seven Ages of Man speech of Jaques in As You Like It as his structural outline, Callow hangs out the speeches of Constance in King John, of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Henry V, Falstaff, with extracts from "Venus and Adonis" and the sonnets, with a fine care and observation.

We start with the sight of old Adam being cared for in the Forest of Arden, and end with "second childishness, and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." And in between, all human life, indeed, is there.

To 23 July (0844 871 7632)