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!

Summer Season

Summer has pretty much ended (some say it never began) but as the season draws to a close, minds turn to future months. And so it is that the RSC have announced the line-up for their 2015 Summer Season. As the trailer below shows, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre will feature Shakespeare’s ‘two great Venetian tragedies’ Othello and The Merchant of Venice and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In the Swan, John Ford’s Othello-influenced Love’s Sacrifice gets an extremely rare outing and is performed alongside Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (an influence on The Merchant of Venice) and Ben Jonson’s wonderful Volpone, which will be directed by Trevor Nunn. Additionally, 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V will be condensed into a single play and performed at the Swan and on tour. Curiously, the production will be entitled The Famous Victories of Henry V, which is, in fact, already the name of an early modern play, performed, in the 1580s, by the Queen’s Men.

I like the balance of the new season and the potential for interaction between the different productions (as well Othello and Love’s Sacrifice, and The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of MaltaVolpone is sure to be seen in interesting light next to Death of a Salesman). It’ll also be fascinating to see Love’s Sacrifice, especially given the mini-Ford resurgence at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Broken Heart are each to be performed.

Famous Victories

The Famous Victories of Henry V: NOT being performed at a theatre near you…

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.

Marlowe at Canterbury

To commemorate the 450th anniversary of the birth of Christopher Marlowe, Fourth Monkey Theatre Company embarked on an ambitious project to stage three Marlowe plays in a month. All three were performed in Marlowe’s native city, Canterbury, two at the theatre which now bears his name and one at the majestic Canterbury Cathedral. Opening with Doctor Faustus, the young company then took on The Massacre at Paris and The Jew of Malta. It’s not too hard to find a production of Doctor Faustus so I decided against the journey from Stratford, but The Massacre at Paris and The Jew of Malta are much less commonly seen (although, remarkably, there was also an excellent production of the former at the bankside Rose by The Dolphin’s Back in the same month). In this post, I wanted briefly to comment on how Fourth Monkey used (or did not use) comic elements in the two productions I saw and what this might suggest about the plays and about wider attitudes towards non-Shakespearean Renaissance tragedy.

I’ll begin with a contention: although tragedies are often funny, when Renaissance tragedies are read or performed, they frequently generate laughter which seems, to me at least, unhelpful and unfortunate. It’s easy to view tragedies of the period as comically excessive and melodramatic and while this isn’t a problem in itself, it’s a shame if it becomes the predominant way of viewing the genre, not least because it seems to imply that the plays are poor in quality and unable to move their audiences. I don’t want to push this point too far, partly because I don’t want to suggest that tragedies can’t be funny, and partly because I don’t think that comic elements debase a tragedy and make it less serious or worthy. However, there is a difference between laughing at the grim comedy of a tragedy and laughing at a tragedy because it is thought to be crass and unShakespearean, (a point recently made by Holger Syme in his blog post about The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). I think non-Shakespearean tragedy is often patronised by laughter.

Because of this, I actually found it quite brave of Fourth Monkey to play The Massacre at Paris as unremittingly bleak. Sure, the production ran out of steam towards the end, but the extraordinary sequence of scenes that comprise the massacre proved to be exciting and frightening drama. Played, atmospherically, in the Cathedral crypt, yards from the Huguenot Chapel (which the audience members were invited to explore pre-show) the production made striking use of incense, candles, and music. The Rose production, mentioned above, showed that the scenes can be very effectively staged in a stylized, Tarantino-esque fashion, but Fourth Monkey proved that a more sombre approach can also work. In the end, a virtually humourless approach misses the tonal complexity of Marlowe’s play, and this was one of the reasons why The Dolphin’s Back production was superior, but Fourth Monkey are to be applauded for their bravery in accepting The Massacre at Paris as a serious play about a terrible and significant event in European history.

Unfortunately, I found their Jew of Malta less successful. Again, the company seemed determined to emphasize the sombreness of the tragedy, but in this case, I thought it was a miscalculation. The Jew of Malta is a brilliantly funny play, but the production didn’t do enough to bring this humour out; instead, it seemed to push the play in a direction it didn’t want to go. The text tells us that Barabas dies by falling into a cauldron: a death which seems by turns preposterous and oddly fitting. In the Fourth Monkey production, Barabas, high up on the stage with his arms chained to the scaffolding, was effectively crucified. Perhaps the crucifixion image was an attempt to force the play to become what the prologue (omitted in this production) describes as ‘the tragedy of a Jew’. By having Barabas killed in a religiously sensitive way the production seemed to invite an unusual degree of sympathy with the character, while reminding us that the Christians of the play world are far from honourable. But this seemed overstated: the irony, that the Christian Ferneze is the most Machiavellian character, is already well established, and the production’s final image, echoing the opening scene, called attention to the similarities between Barabas and the Maltese Governor. There’s certainly something sinister about the ending, but the desire to make the play more like a conventional tragedy actually robs it of many of its greatest and most distinguishing features. The French lutenist disguise was terrific fun, and some of the lines hit home (they’re too good not to) but many went for nothing. Treating The Massacre at Paris reverentially had some striking benefits, but The Jew of Malta needed to be much more playful.