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.

SAA 2016

The Shakespeare Association of America conference is usually a useful but punishing experience: useful to meet people, to share ideas, and to be exposed to new ways of thinking; punishing because physically and mentally exhausting. It can be a frustrating and isolating experience: it is very easy to feel alone in a crowd. This year the experience was different for me because, for the first time, I co-organized a seminar. This was my fourth SAA and I’ve had some frustrating experiences in previous conferences – just trying to get a word in can be a challenge when you are a PhD student in a big seminar alongside numerous loquacious high-profile academics. Running a seminar is different. It was scarier than I thought it’d be – I didn’t feel nervous until the morning when I suddenly realized we were in charge of the bloody thing – but it was also a great experience. It’s much easier to meet people (at some seminars I’ve been in I’ve left without properly speaking to everyone) and you get a great perspective on your chosen subject. We were lucky to receive excellent papers that challenged us to think about our topic – reprints, revivals and other renewals of Renaissance plays – in new and surprising ways. We were grateful, as early career academics, to have the opportunity to run a seminar and it’s great to see the SAA supporting early career academics in other ways: Next Gen Plen was again a success and the conference offered contingent faculty grants for the first time. But I can’t help thinking that what was, for me, a profitable conference experience (this time) may have been a frustration or disappointment to someone else. We probably don’t admit to these difficulties as much as we might do. Certainly, I haven’t always done this in the past. I feel a lot more confident and secure in conferences now, but it’s still scary. Twitter has been helpful in giving me more confidence to talk to people (even if it was a shame not to have internet access during the conference itself) but it’s not a substitute for the actual conference experience.

Anyway, there have been some useful reflections written on SAA 2016 already. Steve Mentz has written about communities; Joseph Wallace has written about specialisms. I think it’s useful to look at Shakespeare (and Shakespeare conferences) with a critical eye, so I appreciate these responses. My own response would be somewhat narrower, partly because, unlike previous years, I didn’t put myself under pressure to go to everything. SAA can be a great intellectual experience but it often feels like you’re being beaten over the head with all of the stuff you don’t know. I stuck more to my own subject this year which was better for my well-being, if not my critical development! I was pleasantly surprised to find so many panels and seminars placing Shakespeare in direct dialogue with other Renaissance authors. This wasn’t a major surprise – SAA has always been open to that kind of study – but given the peculiar force Shakespeare is exerting in 2016 it was still pleasing to see that Shakespeare was not utterly eclipsing everything else (giant Shakespeare head aside). For example, in the excellent ‘Race and… seminar Shakespeare sat next to The Spanish Gypsy, The Masque of Blackness, The Jew of Malta, The Fair Maid of the West, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The White Devil, The Battle of Alcazar and The English Moor. It was fascinating to see these plays being brought into a variety of conversations with such an important topic. Elsewhere, the wonderful ‘Before Shakespeare: The Drama of the 1580s‘ seminar kept Shakespeare in the picture without making him central. Robert Wilson, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Porter, and ‘Anon’ all featured. And in our seminar topics ranged from the Elizabethan period to the Restoration (including the understudied period between 1642 and 1660) and discussion centred a range of authors and stationers. The final day also featured an excellent panel on Theatre History which opened up valuable discussions about attribution studies and lost plays.

Later this year the International Shakespeare Association’s World Shakespeare Congress will open in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to London. Later still, the British Shakespeare Association Conference will open in Hull. Shakespeare will be celebrated (and why not?) but I’ll be interested to see how not-Shakespearean Renaissance drama features. SAA struck a useful balance, I think, but it remains to be seen how these UK-based conferences handle the topic.

The face that launched a thousand tweets. Oh, wait, that was the other guy

To see or not to see

The Changeling is one of a handful of plays – along with The Duchess of Malfi and A Woman Killed with Kindness – that convinced me I wanted to spend so much of my time reading, watching and writing about Renaissance theatre. It’s also the first play I ever performed in (I was Alonzo, since you ask) and, as such, it has a special place in my affections. Having never actually seen it staged (and having missed Joe Hill-Gibbens’ 2012 Young Vic production) I was looking forward to seeing it on the Sam Wanamaker stage. I’ll be seeing it again in February and will be writing a full review elsewhere, but for now I wanted to make a few brief comments, first about comedy, and then about sightlines.

Last month, I wrote about the Globe’s production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which I thought generated unpleasant and uncritical laughter. It’s not that there isn’t humour in the play, but the production harnessed humour in such a way as to obscure the terrible fate of Annabella. The Changeling, like ‘Tis Pity, is also comic (indeed, even more obviously so) and the Globe actors made sure to capitalize on the potential for laughter. I didn’t find this troubling, as I did with ‘Tis Pity but I wasn’t always sure it was successful, or rather, I felt that it was a shame that the attention to comic opportunities was not matched by attention to other tonal possibilities. For example,  Trystan Gravelle’s De Flores was near-unflappable and charismatic; displaying a fine sense comic timing, he frequently got the audience on side with a well-judged aside. For the most part, this was interesting and effective, but I didn’t really get the sense of the other side of the character. He didn’t seem ugly enough, angry enough, or in much physical or psychic pain. The play seems to demand that its actors embody these contraries, but I felt as if Gravelle addressed only part of the role. De Flores’ disposal of Alonzo, in which he moved from a brutal frenzy into a detached calmness, achieved the kind of effect I was hoping for, but this kind of complexity was not sustained.

My other gripe with the production is also a gripe with how the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is being used. Last year, I complained about sightlines at The Knight of the Burning Pestle and I found myself again frustrated by what I couldn’t see. My view of Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores, revealed in the closet, was pretty much entirely blocked by the actors on-stage. I’m assuming the view is not blocked for people in more central seats; if this is right, it seems a shame that only some people can see. It’s been argued that Renaissance theatre practice privileged listening over watching, but I don’t really understand what is gained by not being able to see.  I suppose it could be said that the blocked sightlines convey something of the confusion of the moment, but I’d rather have the drama of the revelation. Given that it’s easier to see facial expressions at a place like the Sam Wanamaker, where everyone is in close proximity to the stage, it seems a shame not to see the expressions of the actors at this critical moment. Maybe I came with a skewed expectation, but I left frustrated.



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.

Defending the Witch

The Witch of Edmonton is a Jacobean play, often classified as a domestic tragedy – in that it deals primarily with non-aristocratic communities – which was co-written by Thomas Dekker, William Rowley, and John Ford. It is currently enjoying a necessarily brief run at the RSC’s Swan Theatre (Eileen Atkins, playing the title role, is 80 years old) but it was also performed at the same theatre in 1981. Its revival has been greeted with some generally positive reviews and Atkins, in particular, has been praised for a powerful performance. I’m going to have my say about the production elsewhere, at a later date, but here I wanted to address one of the frequent criticisms voiced in reviews: that the play itself isn’t very good. Michael Billington, whose views on Renaissance drama are making me feel increasingly irritated (see my piece on Arden of Faversham for further disagreements), opens his review for The Guardian like this:

Two things stand out in this rare revival of a 1621 play by Rowley, Dekker and Ford. One is the sombre beauty of Gregory Doran’s production, which anchors the play firmly in its original period. The other is the brooding presence of Eileen Atkins as the titular witch. My only doubts concern the quality of the play itself.

He’s not alone. In The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish complains that Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch, is too marginal a figure, laments the ‘fiendishly knotty plotting’ and wishes that the subplot, involving the Bottom-esque Cuddy Banks, be cut entirely. In The Observer, Kate Kellaway describes the play as ‘lively’ and ‘unruly’; the second adjective is more equivocal, but I took this, apparently incorrectly, as a positive. Kellaway then says that ‘too many playwrights spoil the plot’ and that the dramatists ‘seem not to have agreed on whether they were writing a comedy or a tragedy’. It must be said that, while I find the observation unconvincing – loads of solo-authored plays veer between standard definitions of comedy and tragedy and I’m not so sure that such generic indeterminacy spoils anything – Kellaway does admit that the play is entertaining and offers it some praise. Still, there’s a sense that, for many people, this just isn’t a very good play. I don’t agree.

It seems to me that despite all that the fascinating lurches between humour and horror which Kellaway found confusing, the ending settles on a tone which is recognizably sombre, though it does it in a diction which is unusual for tragedy. As Frank Thorney is led off to be executed, he stops to make his peace with the community his actions have torn apart. The ensuing show of forgiveness is genuinely moving. Carter, whose daughter Frank has murdered, is moved to tears by the compassion which unexpectedly flows through him; in turn, he catches the audience off-guard with a metaphor of enchanting simplicity: ‘thou hast made me water my plants in spite of my heart’. Later, in a line which the RSC used to close the play, he ushers the gathered crowd home: ‘so let’s every man home to Edmonton with heavy hearts, yet as merry as we can, though not as we would’. If this was moving in the RSC production (and I felt it was) then it’s because of the quality of the writing, as much as, if not more than, the quality of the acting. There’s much to admire elsewhere as well: Frank Thorney is a fraught, challenging character of considerable complexity, Cuddy Banks – an annoyance to Cavendish – has a perceptive charm which makes him funny and, in his confrontation with the Devil dog, surprisingly powerful, and Elizabeth Sawyer is an engaging and unexpectedly funny character. It’s a play that deserves to be staged.

A full review of this production will appear in Shakespeare.