The World Beaumont Congress

This week I’m attending the World Shakespeare Congress, with hundreds of people from around the world. I thought it would be funny to do some (very light) trolling of the conference hashtag #WSCongress16 by tweeting about Francis Beaumont, who also died 400 years ago this year. Others have joined in – it’s fun to imagine the impossible absurdity of hundreds of Beaumontians gathering together to discuss their favourite author. Several of us have also enjoyed the idea of different factions arguing over the relative supremacy of their writers. So, in some tweets, Marstonians clash with Jonsonians, and Middletonians and Dekkerites either band together or fight each other, depending on who you listen to.

Naturally, these tweets, and others like them, are jokes. To my knowledge, nobody has caused a public disturbance by insisting that James Shirley is better than Thomas Heywood. And yet, jokes have meaning too – these tweets do suggest something about how we conceive of Renaissance dramatists. The focus on single authors – whoever, they might be – often results in the elevation of one chosen individual. Often, this elevation is itself brief. The victim in these instances is not Shakespeare, but the other writers who are left in the shadow of the newly elevated author. This ought not to mean an end to single-author studies, nor to single-author collected editions, both of which offer many great benefits, but those of us interested in the drama of the English Renaissance (and I very much include myself in this) might think of other ways of promoting our subject.

That Was the Year That Was

It’s the time of year when the theatre critics announce their highlights and so, in that indulgent spirit, I offer my own recap on the UK Renaissance theatre scene in 2014.

Naturally, I didn’t get to see everything, so I’ll start by acknowledging the things I really wish I’d been able to see. Top of my wishlist is Marlowe’s Tamburlaine The Great, directed by Michael Boyd at the Theatre for a New Audience in New York.

You don’t get many chances to see either of the Tamburlaine plays and this looks like an exciting and disturbing production. It’s on until early January, so if you’re in New York, do see it! Closer to home, I also missed Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Henry IV at the Donmar in which Harriet Walter starred as King Henry and Jamie Lloyd’s Richard III at Trafalgar Studios, in which Martin Freeman played the title role. I can’t imagine Freeman as Richard III but it had some strong reviews. I also managed to mix up the dates and thereby miss Lucy Bailey’s revival of Titus Andronicus at the Globe and I’d also have loved to have seen the Dolphin’s Back production of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon, directed by James Wallace at the Rose. There are doubtless lots of other things I missed, or have forgotten about, but these are some of the ones that come to mind.

I’ve made a concerted effort to see as many rarely performed Renaissance plays as possible and I’ve been rewarded, almost without exception, with interesting productions. Inevitably, some are more successful than others, but while I wasn’t enthused by the RSC’s The Roaring Girl (and here, I actually blame Dekker and Middleton) I often found that Renaissance plays shone even in the patchier or less successful productions. The Witch of Edmonton emerged for me as a play with a power which exceeded the quality of the RSC’s production. For sure, there were difficult challenges for the young cast who performed Marston’s The Malcontent at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, but here, again, the play’s biting humour and tonal variety came across strongly. I thought that the RSC’s Arden of Faversham slightly over-egged the comedy, but there’s little doubt that the play packs a punch and certainly need not be thought of as a ‘historical document’ as Michael Billington insists. Elsewhere, a series of playreadings at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon proved the vitality of Thomas Heywood’s plays and in June I recorded some of the responses to his Age plays in a blog post which you can view here. And in London, Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle received a deserved full production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and was a major success: it has just reopened and will play until early January so see it if you can. There were many highlights: I had some reservations about Cheek by Jowl’s 2014 revival of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, but I thought its ceaseless inventiveness made it vastly superior to the Globe’s production. Much has been made of how the small stage and atmospheric lighting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse can create a sense of an invaded intimacy, but Cheek by Jowl, by staging the entire play as if in Annabella’s bedroom, were more successful in this regard. I also really enjoyed Edward’s Boy’s brilliant and joyful production of Galatea. Dolphin’s Back, who deserve more recognition, are one to watch out for in 2015: their production of Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris was exciting, disturbing, and funny.

By contrast, the Shakespeare shows I saw this year often underwhelmed. On the whole, I thought the National’s King Lear misfired and the RSC’s summer season was a little flat. Curiously, The Two Gentlemen of Verona played for only a couple of months meaning that Gregory Doran’s Henry IV productions reigned in the main house for, perhaps, a little too long. I was looking forward to seeing Filter’s Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol ahead of its new year tour but I found it ill-judged and unsuccessful. The Original Pronunciation staged reading of Macbeth, performed worked better, however, and the OP added an interesting twist to proceedings, as I discussed here. It should be said that I didn’t do much to prioritize Shakespeare productions; in 2015 I’ll try harder to catch a wider range of Shakespeare plays. In my next post, I’ll preview some of the shows I’m most looking forward to seeing.

Decimosexto

In John Webster’s Induction to the 1603 King’s Men production of The Malcontent Henry Condell makes a charming reference to adult actors as folio sized, and children’s actors as decimosexto sized. It’s an allusion to the growing competition developing between child and adult companies in early seventeenth-century England. Child companies were influential, and they performed some of the finest plays of the period, but they had a chequered history: the first set of boy players performed in the 1570s and 1580s before closing down; the second set started up around the turn of the century but were closed down by the early 1610s and although there were Caroline boy players in the late 1630s, they didn’t last long either. Lately, however, there’s been something of a revival of interest in children’s players and the plays they first performed. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing a magnificent children’s company production of a rarely performed play. As I suggested in a blog post (which you can read here) the Edward’s Boys Galatea was a triumph for both the company, and the playwright, John Lyly. On Saturday, I saw another talented group of young actors take on another Renaissance classic, John Marston’s The Malcontent (first performed by boys, but later appropriated by the King’s Men). The Globe Young Players, comprising boys and girls between 12 and 16 years old, did a sterling job and will bring the first season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to a successful close. 

At the play’s core is the deposed Duke Altofronto who disguises as the malcontent Malevole. It is an enormously demanding part. In the early stages especially, Malevole frequently shifts from verse to prose and the coarse invective he spits is often conspicuously repetitive (consider, for example: as gum into tafetta, to fret, to fret. I’ll fall like a sponge into water to suck up, to suck up’). It’s also a part which demands numerous tonal shifts. Malevole is playful and comic, but also angry and he can emerge as a disconcerting figure, especially when, after playing the malcontent role so well, he ascends to the power he had, through his own professed naivety, earlier lost. Malevole is a shapeshifter who puts on many faces throughout the play: he rails at corruption, but he also ingratiates himself with the corrupt court; he reveals his real identity to his friend, Celso, and to the audience, but he hides it from almost everyone else. In a review of the production, Luke McKernan compared the role of Malevole to Blackadder, noting the similar comic discontent of the two characters, but while I can see the comparison, Malevole is arguably a more complex part. Blackadder aspires to a higher social position, but part of the joke is that he never gets it; Malevole, on the other hand, makes a final transformation into the political leader he had been before the play began. It requires yet another tonal shift. Considering these challenges, I thought Joseph Marshall did a fine job, but it was also apparent that the play offers a terrific variety of roles, many of which were exploited with real confidence and verve by the young actors.

Several actors distinguished themselves with particularly impressive performances. Alexander Clarke nailed the role of Bilioso (described in early texts as ‘an old choleric marshal’) with a mannered, but well-judged performance and Freya Parks played the fool Passarello with aplomb, striking up an instant comic rapport with Clarke’s Bilioso. Ben Lynn as the weak Duke Pietro was a good comic patsy, and Martha Lily Dean played the Duchess Aurelia with poise. More wonderful still, was Guy Amos, who delivered a playful and confident Mendoza, communicating every twitch of villainous intent to the audience with an appealing cheekiness. On the one hand, Mendoza, the scheming villain, is a dream role, but there are some difficult speeches here and lots of comic opportunities which are easily missed if the performer fails to acknowledge the playfulness of the villain (a point I made in relation to The Jew of Malta here). As in Edward’s Boys’ Galatea, the young actors showed a mastery of comic timing, and the incredulous question Mendoza addresses to Aurelia at the end of the play – ‘Who let her in?’ – was rightly rewarded with appreciative laughter. Last, but certainly not least, I must acknowledge Sam Hird’s extraordinary performance of Maquerelle, the old pandress. I’m slightly suspicious of giving away prominent female roles to males when, in Renaissance drama, most of the best parts are usually reserved for males (though, admittedly, in this production, Passarello was played by a girl), but Hird, who cross-dressed for the role, was astonishing, finding rich comic potential in almost every line. I had a feeling Hird may be older than the other actors, but I’m amazed to find out that he’s fourteen. Incidentally, the newspaper report from which I learned his age also reveals that he took part in a school production of Nathan Field’s A Woman is a Weathercock: this is wonderful to hear!

I would have liked to have seen a more literal interpretation of the brilliantly contemptuous stage direction ‘he kicks out Mendoza’ (in this production, he was simply carried off stage) but that’s a tiny indulgence on my part: this was a remarkable performance of a brilliant and vibrant play. It proves, as if proof were needed, that younger actors certainly can get to grips with the complexities of Renaissance drama and that the Globe are fully justified in continuing their exploration of the wider early modern repertory. I look forward to seeing the Globe Players in future performances. It would be great, too, to see how Edward’s Boys use the same space when they stage Galatea at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the end of the month. I won’t be able to make it, but am sure it will be spectacular.

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NOTE: In my last blog post, I moaned a little about my experience at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. For The Malcontent I sat in the pit, from where I got a full view of what really is an enchanting playhouse. That I did so for almost half the price makes me feel justified in the complaints I made about sitting in the Lord’s Room.

Fawning

The Globe regularly produce stage readings of rarely performed plays from the period, under the banner ‘Read Not Dead’. Considering I claim to like a broad range of Renaissance drama it is perhaps a bit shameful that, until this month, I’d never been to one of their productions. I shudder to think of all the stuff I’ve missed since I started my PhD in 2009, but I’m glad, at last, I got to see one their productions. I’m glad, too, it was a play I’d already read; indeed, it was one for which I have a good deal of affection: John Maston’s early Jacobean disguised duke drama, The Fawn.

Unfortunately, I’ve lost my programme and I can’t find a cast list on the internet so I can’t properly praise the actors for a variety of entertaining performers (though I can credit James Wallace with a strong performance as the disguised Duke Hercules). What I can do, however, is praise the play and, in particular, Marston’s brilliant, perverse poetry of the body.  Here’s Herod, talking about Hercules, not realizing he is also talking to him:

By this light, I’ll swear he said his father had the hipgout, the strangury, the fistula in ano, and a most unabideable breath; no teeth, less eyes, great fingers, little legs, an external flux, and an everlasting cough of the lungs.

And here’s Hercules, proposing to find a ‘modest, matron-like creature’ for the jealous Don Zuccone:

She has three hairs on her scalp and four teeth in her head, a brow wrinkled and puckered like old parchment half burnt. She has had eyes. No woman’s jawbones are more apparent. Her sometimes envious lips now shrink in, and give her nose and her chin leave to kiss each other very moistly. As for her reverend mouth, it seldom opens, but the very breath that flies out of it infects the fowls of the air, and makes them drop down dead. Her breasts hang like cobwebs. Her flesh will never make you cuckold. Her bones may.

‘She has had eyes’ earned a great laugh, as well it might, though I was especially enamoured with the image of halitosis so bad is causes birds to fall from the skies. And yet, while The Fawn is interested in the lecherous, the ugly, and the corrupt, it also celebrates the young love of Tiberio and Dulicmel. At the start of the play, Hercules resolves not to be ruled by ‘nice opinion’ and hopes to enjoy the ‘wild longings’ of youth by temporarily divesting himself of power and travelling in disguise to a foreign land. His son, Tiberio, is sent to win Dulcimel’s love for his father, so, initially, Hercules does not seem quite so different from the lusty figures that fill Duke Gonzago’s court (perhaps that is why he is able to play the part of the fawn so well). But Hercules genuinely learns about himself by pretending not to be himself. In a funny and tender scene, Tiberio shows Dulcimel a picture of his father as Hercules watches on in disguise. In the Read Not Dead production, the picture was an old cover shot of Wallace; rather wonderfully, Hercules had to look back at a younger version of himself, as his poor lovesick son tried to pass off the image as ‘the perfect counterfeit’. Later, Hercules wistfully acknowledges he ‘never knew till now how old I was’. It’s a poignant tonal shift which offers a striking reminder of Marston’s ample dramatic talents. Just as well that there will be more Marston soon, as the Globe’s fully-mounted production of The Malcontent opens at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse next month.

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