The Duchesses of Malfi

This week, the RSC announced its new season of productions. Excitingly, the company will produce The Duchess of Malfi; even more excitingly, it will be directed by Maria Aberg, who directed an excellent production of Doctor Faustus in 2016. Another Duchess of Malfi is no bad thing and this could yet turn out to be a great one. However, I can’t be the only one who is a bit disappointed. Malfi is the only not-Shakespearean early modern play in the season. While it’s a brilliant play, it’s hardly a particularly bold move. In 2010, Lyn Gardner noted that Malfi had become unusually fashionable; seven years later, Webster’s tragedies remain in vogue: the Globe staged Malfi in 2014 and The White Devil earlier this year; Aberg directed The White Devil for the RSC in 2014. The RSC are currently staging Marlowe and Nashe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and they’ve produced Apha Behn’s The Rover and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in the last couple of years, but this still scratches the surface of a period of phenomenal theatrical creativity.

There are reasons for this, of course. Not everyone loves early modern drama as much as me (fair enough). Theatre companies make commercial choices and they don’t want empty theatres. The RSC’s laudable Scholar’s Pitch project resulted in the full-scale staging of Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice in 2015, but this production was not a commercial success. But the RSC have been adventurous in the past and I hope they will be again. When the Swan opened in 1986 it housed productions of Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West and Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour.

But while some of the more obscure plays of the period may currently seem like too big a risk there is surely room to expand the repertory further. At the moment, Webster and Marlowe reign supreme (see, for example, Edward II; National Theatre, 2013; Dido, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015; RSC, 2017; The Jew of Malta, RSC, 2015; Doctor Faustus, RSC, 2016; West End, 2016). But there are plenty of other canonical not-Shakespearean early modern plays which would add variety to a modern repertory. We’re overdue another major production of The Spanish Tragedy, for example and I think it’s high-time for some more Beaumont and Fletcher, especially given the success of the 2014 Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle. How about The Maid’s Tragedy, Philaster, or A King and No King? The time would also be ripe for an RSC Tamburlaine, if they wanted to keep within the Marlowe canon.

I’ve been thinking about what scholars can do to help get some of these plays better known. We may not convince the RSC to change their approach, but we can continue to spread interest in early modern plays and to help provide opportunities for actors and audiences to get to grips with the wider early modern canon. In London, the Read Not Dead enterprise continues apace, but it would be lovely to see more opportunities to see rarely performed plays beyond London. To that end, the Playhouse Lab project at the University of Leeds looks very exciting. I’ve also been really encouraged to see actors playing an important part in all three of the conferences I attended this year: Playing and Playgoing at Oxford, Before Shakespeare at Roehampton, and the Cockpit/Phoenix symposium at the London Metropolitan Archives. The three events testify to the importance of practice as research, but they also, more broadly, attest to the value and pleasure of performance. Because so many of the plays we work with as scholars of early modern drama are fun!

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Celebrity Marlowe

Note: this blog post considers Doctor Faustus, directed by Jamie Lloyd at the Duke of York’s. I watched the play in preview – the press night is 25 April and the production runs until 25 June. As I saw the show in preview I offer this post as a general discussion of the production and the phenomenon of celebrity casting, rather than as a review. Nonetheless, it contains some things that might be considered spoilers so do bear that in mind.

Marlowe

Celebrity casting has enabled theatre companies to make Shakespeare the hottest ticket in town. Last year the phenomenon of CumberHamlet followed on from the success of Tom Hiddlestone in Coriolanus: these productions traded on the cachet of Shakespeare, for sure, but also on the star appeal of their leading men. Fans flocked to the theatres to see Cumberbatch and Hiddlestone but also, by extension, Sherlock and Loki, as well as Hamlet and Caius Martius. The success of British stage actors in US film and TV has meant that actors who first made their name in the theatre have come to bring additional celebrity appeal: new generations know Ian McKellen as Gandalf and/or Magneto. But this celebrity appeal is not entirely new. When sixteenth-century playgoers attended the theatres they knew they were seeing Edward Alleyn, or Richard Burbage and those playgoers presumably carried with them the memories of past performances and other characters. How much of Alleyn’s Tamburaline did Elizabethan audiences see in his Faustus?

In my experience, modern celebrity casting changes the audience dynamic (and often, the audience composition) but I haven’t picked up on whether knowledge of the identity of the celebrity has much of an effect on an interpretation of the play. Perhaps that’s because I don’t know enough about the actors themselves or the shows they appear in; it might be that more avid fans are making connections I am not able to access. None of this is a problem, of course, but still a potential point of interest. After all, none of these productions depend upon prior knowledge of the actor: presumably, there were people at Hamlet who didn’t know that much about Cumberbatch; presumably people went to see Doctor Faustus in the 1580s without knowing much about Edward Alleyn. And so it was for me as I prepared to watch Kit Harington play Faustus in Jamie Lloyd’s production in the Duke of York’s. I don’t watch Game of Thrones – to me, Jon Snow is a newsreader, not the bastard son of the lord of Winterfell – so I wondered how my limited knowledge of the celebrity of the actor might affect my playgoing experience.

Does it matter that the person playing Faustus is a celebrity? I expected the answer to be ‘not really’ but to my surprise I found that the production very playfully drew on Harington’s star appeal. Although the production begins and ends with Marlowe’s blank verse large swathes of the play have been rewritten by the Irish playwright Colin Teevan. These new scenes replaced much of the comic jesting including Faustus’s visit to the Pope (here played as a visit to the President of the United States). Shortly after Faustus’s encounter with the seven deadly sins (nicely played by Tom Edden) the production took an abrupt about turn. The set – initially, a hotel room – was transformed and Faustus appeared to step outside of the play as he and the other characters abandoned blank verse and early modern English. Time was telescoped so in the instant that Faustus walked through the door of the new set we moved into a future in which he was now a celebrity magician, famous for his illusions. Harington was playing a different version of Faustus, but also a different version of himself and part of the enjoyment for the audience was seeing him revelling in this role by exposing his abs and even, at one moment, his backside. ‘This is what you came to see!’ is the overall effect of this strutting performance.

This, then, was a production that made particular use of its celebrity lead. It was interesting to see how much freer Harington seemed in these scenes. We sometimes talk about blank verse as an empowering theatrical force that helps the actor to realize their part but it arguably often has the opposite effect. For Harington, it seemed like a prison. This is partly because Faustus is much freer when he is flying round the world as a magical illusionist than when bargaining with Lucifer and Mephistopheles, but it is also the result of a struggle with Marlowe’s verse. It’s clear that the production was keen to play around with Marlowe’s text in many ways but I wonder if the verse speaking was treated with too much reverence. The additional scenes made numerous playful topical references including jokes at the expense of David Cameron and Donald Trump and it took a delight in the tacky, the tawdry, and the hollow. Topical jokes got big laughs but they were essentially crowd pleasers. Given the celebrity framework of the production this seemed to me a self-aware comment on the shallow appeal of popularity. The jokes serve their purpose because they get laughs but the laughs quickly dissipate and leave nothing behind; this was not an attempt at complex political satire but rather an exploration of the essential nullity at the core of Faustus.

This, in turn, prepared the audience for the darkly effective ending. The play poses a great challenge: how to represent Hell. In Lloyd’s production, Hell was the realization of absence. Right at the end of the play Faustus commits an atrocious act (I won’t say what) but his focus is immediately on his own imminent damnation rather than the effect of his actions on others. Yet he also realizes what he has done and what he has lost and the production ends, not with him being dragged into Hell, but with him spinning in a circle – is this a visual quotation of the ending of Rupert Goold’s The Merchant of Venice? – cradling an imaginary body.

RSC Summer Season

A few months ago, I wrote a disgruntled blog post about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse winter 2015/16 season. My problem was that the Globe abandoned their commitment towards the wider corpus of Renaissance drama to stage a succession of Shakespeare shows. I was particularly irritated by the suggestion that the entire enterprise of staging non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays was merely an ‘experiment’. It’s not the end of the world, of course, but a bit of a shame, eRSCven given the 2016 anniversary. It was with a degree of trepidation, then, that I awaited news of the RSC’s 2016 Summer Season. Would they go all out Shakespeare too? Thankfully, the answer is no. In amongst the standard Shakespeare staples – their A Midsummer Night’s Dream sounds interesting; Hamlet is being done, again – is a Cymbeline (which may be contrasted with the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker production later this year) and, best of all, some more Marlowe and Jonson. Even if these shows are in the Swan, rather than the main house, it’s great to see them played alongside Shakespeare, rather than in some weird vacuum.

Maria Aberg, who directed a fine King John and what was, for my money, a hit and miss The White Devil at the Swan in 2012 and 2014, will direct Doctor Faustus. Polly Findlay, whose 2014 Arden of Faversham I rather liked, directs Jonson’s The Alchemist. The RSC’s Volpone was excellent, so if they can do anything like that again, I’ll be happy. In amidst the Shakespeare celebrations we shouldn’t forget the 400th anniversary of the Ben Jonson Folio and I hope there’ll be more Jonson to see in the next year. The burning question, though, is surely: will anyone be celebrating the 400th anniversary of Francis Beaumont’s death? After the Globe’s excellent Knight of the Burning Pestle will someone dare having a go at some more Beaumont? 

Play Previews: May – August

I usually write a preview post every four months or so. It’s that time again…

MAY is a busy month. I’ll be in London later this week where I will try to see The Globe’s Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock. I’ll also definitely see the RSC’s A Mad World My Masters at the Barbican. I was finishing my PhD when this was on in Stratford, so completely missed it, so I’m happy to have another chance to see the Constable of the Commonwealth. I’ll be in Stratford later this month too, where I’ll look forward to seeing Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and, if possible, Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice. If I can, I’ll also go back to London for Ninagawa’s Hamlet at the Barbican. It will be busy, then, and there will be a lot that I won’t see. I won’t get to the York International Shakespeare Festival and I’ll miss the Malone Society’s staged reading of King Leir at Somerville College, Oxford. Last year’s event, which I wrote about here, was really good, so I’m sad to miss it.

JUNE sees the opening of two of my favourite plays: Measure for Measure at the Globe and Othello at the RSC. I’ll hope to see both. It’s also an interesting month for staged readings of John Ford. The Globe’s Read Not Dead will produce The Queen in May and follow that up with The Lover’s Melancholy and Perkin Warbeck in June. You can see the full list herePerkin Warbeck is really wonderful, so I’ll try very hard to see it (in the meantime, someone please do a full production). I’ll be in Canterbury at the end of the month for the John Fletcher conference at which there will be a script-in-hand performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen at St Mildred’s Church. The full details, including the conference programme, are available here.

JULY involves another exciting Fletcher event: a script-in-hand performance of The Scornful Lady at The Shakespeare Institute. Middleton’s A Game at Chess also gets a script-in-hand performance in July, at an interesting symposium in Canterbury. I also look forward to the opening of the RSC’s Volpone and to the National Theatre of China’s Richard III which is at the Globe.

AUGUST is harder to preview – I’m sure lots of things will pop up between now and then, but I’ll hopefully also see The Merchant of Venice at the RSC and I’m interested in Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptation of the medieval Everyman at the National. I’m sure there’s lots that I’ve missed out or don’t know about and there are some that I’ve ignored (I can’t write about everything!) Let me know what you think!

2015

In my last post I said I would preview some of the exciting shows due to take place in 2015. Here, then, are a couple of things to look out for in the next few months.

JANUARY: This month I’ll be seeing Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I wasn’t altogether convinced by the Globe’s recent ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore but I’m looking forward to seeing what they do, not least because I’ll be teaching it later in the term. Elsewhere, look out for Rupert Goold’s reprisal of his Las Vegas-set The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida. I wasn’t really sold on the show when it was produced by the RSC in 2011, but would be interested to see it again. I’d also be curious to see Frantic Assembly’s Othello, now playing at the Lyric Hammersmith.

FEBRUARY: Now that I’m based in Swansea, I’m trying to keep a closer eye on Welsh productions of Renaissance drama. Two important Welsh productions open in February. First, Terry Hands directs Hamlet at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in a production which will then tour. Later in the month, Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff present an all-female production of Richard III directed by Yvonne Murphy. Back in my old home of Stratford, I’ll also look forward to seeing Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, before it closes on 7 March.

MARCH: In March Tara Arts will bring Indian movement and music to their touring production of Macbeth which will visit Swansea’s Taliesin Arts Centre. In London, Lazarus Theatre Company will perform Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley. I was sad to miss their acclaimed production of The Spanish Tragedy in 2013, so will catch it if I can. I’m also looking forward to seeing the continued exploration of John Ford’s drama. Ford’s The Broken Heart will open at the Sam Wanamaker in March and, in the same month, Edward’s Boys, – whose Galatea was one of the year’s highlights – will perform The Lady’s Trial in collaboration with Globe Education. It’s very interesting to see Edward’s Boys moving out of the Elizabethan/Jacobean repertory to explore a play by Beeston’s Boys. Finally, sometime in the month, the brilliant The Maid’s Tragedy by Beaumont and Fletcher will be performed in Canterbury as part of The Beaumont and Fletcher Project. Details are forthcoming.

APRIL: I’m really looking forward to seeing Cheek by Jowl’s Russian language Measure for Measure, which will come to the Barbican in mid-April. I saw Cheek by Jowl’s Russian Tempest in 2011 and it was among the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. I also really ought to see Northern Broadsides’ King Lear, which opens in late February, but tours until June and visits my hometown of Liverpool in April. Rather shamefully, for a notherner, I’ve never seen a Northern Broadsides production; it might be a good idea to rectify that error. I’ll also see Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, by the Globe Young Players at the Sam Wanamaker. I enjoyed their Malcontent, so look forward to seeing what they do with Dido.

I’m not sure I’ll get to see all of these and even less sure I’ll write about them, but I’ll see and write about, as much as I can. This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course and do, please, tell me what I’ve missed.