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!


King Hal

In the preliminary interviews to the live screening of the RSC Henry V (somewhat underwhelmingly advertised as ‘THE Shakespearean event of the autumn‘) Alex Hassell (Henry V, and, previously, Hal in the RSC’s 1 and 2 Henry IV) tried to wrestle with what he saw as the moral ambiguities of the title character. For Hassell this was not necessarily a straightforwardly nationalist play. It didn’t stop the ever-reliable Dominic Cavendish from writing a nauseating review in praise of Hassell’s Henry – for Cavendish the RSC production was (and this is a real quote) ‘just what the nation ordered’. Cavendish has previous form when it comes to willful misreadings of RSC productions in the service of his own political agenda – his review of The Shoemaker’s Holiday failed to mention that the production ended with the horror of a young boy’s conscription and preferred instead to emphasise what he saw as the fairy tale charm of the play. So, is Cavendish willfully misreading, or does Gregory Doran’s production, Hassell’s performance, (and, indeed, the play itself) give him cause to pen this nationalist celebration?Henry V

At this point I should probably reveal my own sense of the play. I don’t want to make excuses for Shakespeare or to sanitize the play by making it fit my own distaste for British/English nationalism, but I do think that Henry is a heavily ironized character and it really is not very hard to find examples which trouble the idea that he is an English hero. For example, when Henry disguises as a common soldier to assess the mood of the camp he is outwitted by the passionate and perceptive Michael Williams, who rejects the premise of the war and laments the devastation it causes, not only to bodies, but also, to souls. Henry’s soliloquy delivered shortly after meeting Williams demonstrates that he has missed the point. He laments his own responsibility and ignores his own privilege (which he dismisses as ‘ceremony’) and then labels the intelligent soldiers as ‘vacant’ wretches who sleep soundly in their beds. But we’ve just seen, of course, that what Henry says here is not true: Williams is not vacant and will not sleep soundly. So, when Henry meets Williams later, it has the potential to be really rather disturbing: when Henry reveals himself he humiliates and terrifies Williams and when he pardons Williams it is an act of ceremony which further enshrines his kingly power at the cost of allowing him to learn from the experiences of his subjects. This can be played in a variety of ways, of course, and in choosing their particular route, the RSC (to my mind) went a long way towards emblematizing the kind of production we were watching. Unfortunately, their staging choice served to exonerate Henry by allowing him to demonstrate his laddish chumminess. Again and again I kept thinking about Hassell’s Henry as a Hal-like figure and, to a certain extent, I felt invited to consider this to be part of his charm, appeal, and effectiveness.

So how was this staged? Simon Yadoo’s Williams initially reacted to the news that the man he had pledged to fight was, in fact, the king of England, with surprise, but, rather than stressing the danger of the situation – Williams has backed himself into a corner and now has to acknowledge he cannot keep his word without an enormous risk to his life – the RSC allowed Williams to keep his oath: he finished what appeared to be a deferential speech with an unexpected punch that caught Henry (and the audience) off guard. It’s a comic scene and the King laughs it off by giving Williams a reward, thereby demonstrating his essentially genial nature. But what’s the cost here? Henry somehow ends up coming out of this with the audience onside (or further onside than they might have been before) and all of the danger of the situation dissipated. There are times when Henry is presented as more malicious or cruel, of course, but the Williams scene and other moments like it work to make him a more palatable figure: by the end he is a somewhat chumpish would-be romancer. I thought Hassell brought out some of the childishness of Henry – some of his decision making smacks of playground revenge tactics: you hit me and I will hit you back – but while this might, at times, disturb, it also played into the hands of Cavendish and co. for whom an affable young man, rising into political and military prominence can be seen as what ‘the nation ordered’.

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? 

Goodman Volpone

Henry Goodman lives up to his name by delivering an exceptional performance in the title role of Trevor Nunn’s RSC production of Volpone. Indeed, he is so good he risks slightly unbalancing the production: Mosca’s (Orion Lee’s) coldly calculated betrayal of Volpone is quietly impressive, but, in the main his is a functional performance, unable to match the virtuoso. Annette McLaughlin’s hilarious Lady Politic-Would Be deserves a special mention –  as does her accompanying twitter account  – but this is, ultimately, Volpone’s show. Perhaps accordingly, the production is somewhat lighter in tone than might have been expected: it’s hard to separate affection for the actor from affection for the character and so this Volpone effectively wins out at the end of the production, in a manner which might recall the twist ending of con artist movies like The Sting. Volpone is punished, of course, but he doesn’t seem too troubled by his sentence and it’s notable, too, that the production text (edited and modernised by Ranjit Bolt) makes Mosca’s punishment less severe. Minutes after the punishments have been issued, Volpone re-emerges for his epilogue and laps up the audience adulation. In his final lines ‘If there be, censure him; here he doubtful stands/If not, fare jovially and clap your hands’ Goodman pronounced ‘fare jovially’ in the Italian accent he had earlier used in his wonderfully rambling performance as Scoto of Mantua, and ‘clap your hands’ in the cockney accent used in his later disguise as the Guard. Goodman’s performances, and the delight he took in them, were celebrated above and beyond anything else. Rightly so, he was wonderful.

The seasoning of a play, is the applause.

Now, though the Fox be punish’d by the laws,

He yet doth hope, there is no suffering due,

For any fact which he hath done ‘gainst you;

If there be, censure him; here he doubtful stands:

If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (My Masters)

Mad World

I managed to miss A Mad World My Masters when it played at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in 2013 but was grateful to get to see it in London, at the Barbican, where it enjoyed a short run. I’m pretty pleased to have seen it and the more I think about it, the more I like it. At first, I found it hard to get past the often ineffective modernizations – of these, the most irritating is the substitution of ‘Littledick’ for the funnier ‘Shortrod’, but there are other annoying examples too. But while it seems to me that, on the whole, the production struggled with the verbal intricacies of Middleton’s text, it scored highly for visual inventiveness. The visual jokes often had depth and richness with the cruder verbal puns did not (and by crude, I mean unsophisticated, not salacious – there were plenty of salacious visual jokes). The production’s distrust of Middleton’s language was flagged up by Penitent Brothel’s interpolated admission that his pun isn’t very good. ‘I cannot be patient and physician too’ he says, before turning to the audience to add ‘Thomas Middleton, 1605’. The RSC have, of course, placed faith in Middleton by staging his play, but still, this isn’t the worst pun in the production – plenty of the newer additions are equally groansome. As Emma Smith noted in the TLS, the production betrays a ‘surprising lack of confidence in the play’s original language’.

To Smith’s list of examples of unsuccessful modernizations I’d add the unfortunate decision to excise the potentially knockout line ‘I am the constable i’th’ common wealth’ and replace it with ‘I am the constable in the very tragedy’. I’ve heard the ‘common wealth’ line work wonderfully in play readings and it works better rhythmically, to my ear at least. Furthermore, it makes more sense: the Constable is trying to point out what we know and the onstage ‘audience’ do not – that they are not watching a play – but it includes a further metatheatrical joke as we also know he’s not actually in a common wealth but is, in fact, in a play. But while these updates usually seem botched, the visual updates do not. The fake play-within-a-play involves Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Sir Bounteous Progress in Middleton) hosting a Jacobean fancy dress party, so we get a gesture towards original staging arriving, with wonderful incongruity, in the middle of a consciously updated production.  

What to make of the gap between the way the production treats the visual and the verbal? I’m cautious about claiming that theatre producers should ‘trust the text’ and it may be that the irreverence shown to the language allowed for a more playful approach to be taken, but it’s not a bad thing to use the words either – many of them are pretty good.