How to Know a Good Play From a Bad

How do we know if a play is good? As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I think a narrow focus on a small number of plays or authors closes off encounters with the startling variety of the English Renaissance dramatic corpus, but even I must admit that at least some of these plays must be bad. I want to say that all plays are worth reading and performing but it sounds like a statistical impossibility that they should all be worthy of our time and attention. There is much to be gained by treating plays as cultural or historical evidence and apparently dry or staid plays can be illuminated by careful historical enquiry but that is not the same as saying that these plays should actually be performed or watched. If ‘bad’ plays are championed then it is likely to damage the enterprise of promoting Renaissance drama: it will be easier to repeat the kinds of cursory dismissal that have blighted obscure plays for so long. Not liking a play is not the same as writing it off and nobody is under any obligation to like anything, but perhaps there are responsibilities for those of us hoping to encourage the reading, performance, and criticism of Renaissance plays.

None of this answers the opening question. While it is reductive to think about things as being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – we might even, perish the thought, have to quote Hamlet on this matter – it seems unhelpfully obtuse to assume that all plays are equally worthwhile. It is often assumed that performance proves the quality of a play. When a play is performed it reveals itself in a different way to when it is read. Indeed, as the plays of the Renaissance commercial theatre were written to be performed it seems logical to say that they might work better in performance than in print. But this is a troublesome assumption in several respects. First, it devalues the reading experience, treating print as inferior, while also ignoring the literary quality of printed plays. Secondly, it assumes that the blame for a bad performance lies with the play and not the performers. I want to consider the implications of this second claim.

As we know, performances are sometimes bad, or are perceived to be bad, for any number of reasons: it might be a directorial concept that doesn’t work, it might be a difficulty with utilising the dimensions of the theatrical space, it might be a misjudged central performance. In the case of old plays there are further problems. It might be that there is a difficulty with the language, or that it depends upon a particular frame of reference that is now past. It might be that the playing conventions familiar to one old dramatist – let’s say, Shakespeare – do not work very well for another writer, with a different linguistic and dramaturgical style. Of course, it might be the play itself, or a combination of factors, but it seems unhelpful to assume that a performance will prove the quality of a Renaissance play.

But what happens when a play is performed repeatedly and is still not successful? This is what I have been thinking about, having watched the RSC’s The Alchemist. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think it worked either. Naturally, lots of people will disagree with me and I am not trying to make totalising claims about either the play or the production, but I want to think through my responses: I like the play and think it’s good but performances usually leave me disappointed and I’ve heard a number of people suggesting the fault may lie with the play itself.

My problem with the RSC Alchemist is that, like the other productions I’ve seen, it dragged. Epicure Mammon was funny, as he almost always is, but, with a few exceptions, the rest of the production was fairly strained. The final modernising conceit – Face steps out of his Renaissance-style costume into modern dress and addresses the audience as gulls – was reasonably effective but seemed rushed. I’ve seen that kind of manoeuvre done better elsewhere. It seems to me that Epicure works well in performance because his language is so brilliantly lavish (and this is something familiar to regular Shakespeare audiences) and that the ending is often performed interestingly because directors apparently enjoy the chance to supplement Jonson’s twist ending with a twist of their own. The trouble is that those are relatively small moments in a play that can be over three hours long. Much of the play is dependent on pace, brilliant chemistry between the actors, and sustained over-the-top performances. I don’t think any of this is easy to achieve but the problem is that the play palls without it. Here, I think, the problem is not exactly the play, but that itrequires something unusually difficult to achieve and something substantially different to other plays by, for example, Shakespeare.

Few Renaissance plays get multiple chances. The City Madam and The Witch of Edmonton are just two of the plays written off in the press after a single performance. In the past, The Knight of the Burning Pestle has received that treatment, before the Globe’s acclaimed Sam Wanamaker Playhouse show in 2014 changed the record. In a different way, the same may be true of some of the lesser known Shakespeare plays too. Someone, somewhere in the world, is right now saying that Cymbeline simply doesn’t work on stage. I’m still no clearer how to go about deciding how to tell ‘good’ from ‘bad’ plays or what to do with the ‘bad’ ones, but writing them off, especially after a single performance, seems like a bad idea.

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.

Fêting Fletcher

Due to other commitments (read: job) I can’t post much on here at the moment, though I do intend to get back to more regular postings in the future. Luckily for me, a great event was just announced, which means I get to write a post telling everyone how good it will be.

The event in question is a major two day conference focused on John Fletcher, an enormously important and influential Jacobean dramatist (and yes, Shakespeare fans, sometime collaborator with you-know-who). Fletcher is important for a great many reasons though, of which his work with Shakespeare is only a small part. His most famous collaboration was with Francis Beaumont, author of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, with whom he wrote some wonderful and underperformed plays like The Maid’s Tragedy and A King and No King. Some of these plays – Philaster springs to mind – were among the most celebrated of the day. Fletcher proved he could work alone too, taking on The Taming of the Shrew in The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed, in which the women fight back against the tyranny of men.

That’s just scratching the surface too; the plays I’ve mentioned are among the more well-known examples. Fletcher had a hand in around 50 extant plays and collaborated with other writers like Philip Massinger, and Nathan Field. The planned conference will shine a light on a much wider body of work and expose largely unexplored plays to much deserved analysis. I’m hoping to submit something on The Prophetess, a play I read for the first time in the Beaumont and Fletcher marathon of 2013, and I’m looking forward to hearing about what everyone else will be up to.

The organizers Steve Orman (recently awarded his doctorate at Canterbury Christ Church; congrats!) and José A. Pérez Díez (The Shakespeare Institute) are also wonderfully innovative, in that they are co-coordinating a supplementary performance of a Fletcher play. The choices are great and you can get involved by voting for your favourite using the hashtag #teamjohnfletcher or by emailing The conference website is well-worth checking out, so do take a look here where you will find the full CFP plus details on the plays up for selection. My interested in deposed rulers is making me edge towards Beggar’s Bush, but I haven’t voted yet!

The Age of Heywood

As I mentioned, briefly, in a previous post, The Shakespeare Institute is hosting a Heywood Marathon: a readthrough of the extant plays attributed to Thomas Heywood. Time constraints mean I have missed much of it, but I’ve been able to take in the Age plays; a cycle of classical histories. Further time constraints mean I can’t provide anything substantial by way of analysis, but I wanted to share something of the experience of reading the plays by providing some links to tweets. What these tweets reveal (and there are many more of them; check the hashtag) is that there is a real appetite for the plays. And justly so; they call upon the use of a range of, frankly remarkable, special effects. Consider, for example, the end of The Golden Age:

Iris descends and presents [Jupiter] with his Eagle, Crowne and Scepter, and his thunder-bolt. Iupiter first ascends vpon the Eagle, and after him Ganimed

Neptune drawes the Sea, is mounted vpon a sea-horse; a Roabe and Trident, with a crowne are giuen him by the Fates

Then, after the sound of ‘Thunder and Tempest’ Neptune riseth disturb’d: the Fates bring the 4 winds in a chaine, & present him to Aeolus, as their King

Pluto drawes hell: the Fates put vpon him a burning Roabe, and present him with a Mace, and burning crowne

These examples, and more besides, offer an important counterargument (if any is needed) to modern conceptions of the ‘bare’ stages of outdoor playhouses. It’s fascinating to consider how the Red Bull might have pulled off these effects.

The Paper Stage

The Paper Stage is a brilliant new initiative, instigated by Harry Newman and co-organized by Clare Wright, both of the University of Kent. Located at Canterbury’s arts centre, the Gulbenkian, the Paper Stage is a public play-reading group aiming to explore the diverse drama of the English Renaissance.

Paper Stage 23 06 14

This is a great event, for a number of reasons. Staging a play is a difficult and time-consuming venture, but play-reading groups offer some of the advantages of a full staging. Last month, the group gathered to read Romeo and Juliet and you can see, from the lively student responses, the advantages of reading the play aloud. Now, it’s not too hard to see Shakespeare’s plays, but if you want to see other writers, it can be considerably more difficult. The Paper Stage will allow the public access to a greater variety of plays and can hopefully show some of the dramatic power of these works.

I could say more about this, but instead it’s best if I direct the interested reader to the project’s official blog I can’t make this event, for the very good reason that I am several hours away, in Stratford, but do you have a good excuse? If not, then turn up on Monday 23 June to read Marlowe’s brilliant The Jew of Malta.

NOTE: On the subject of play-readings, I really should mention the Thomas Heywood Marathon taking place at The Shakespeare Institute in association with the Lizz Ketterer Trust. I can’t make the whole thing, but will be dipping in and out. Blog posts on the subject (possibly) forthcoming.