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over-egged the comedy, but there’s little doubt that the play packs a punch and certainly need not be thought of as a ‘historical document’ as Michael Billington insists.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.

The Dolphin’s Back

In March 2014, The Dolphin’s Back, a newly formed theatre group dedicated to the revitalization of forgotten plays staged a highly successful production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris at the Rose Theatre, Bankside. They justly received numerous positive reviews. This was partly because of the style with which they attacked the brilliant succession of violent scenes which constitute Marlowe’s staging of the titular massacre, but it’s also because, as Pete Kirwan rightly notes, the ensemble cast managed to maintain focus even after the initial massacre scenes. The scenes involving the favourites of King Henri III call to mind Marlowe’s earlier Edward II, but James Askill, as the French King, ensured his character did not become merely some second-rate Edward. This involves the use of a toilet…. I won’t spoil it any further though, as if you want to see this wonderful production, you get a second chance: it’s being revived at the Rose on 7 October.

The revival of The Massacre at Paris is exciting enough, but, in fact, it’s the company’s newest production which looks set to gain the greatest attention. On 16 September, The Dolphin’s Back will stage John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon, ingeniously described as an ‘extraordinary astrological sex comedy’ (as opposed to the merely ordinary astrological sex comedies we are so used to). Other commitments mean I am almost certain to miss this one (though maybe it, too, will get a revival) but I’ve confidence that the company will do justice to Lyly, whose Galatea was so brilliantly performed earlier in the year by Edward’s Boys. I leave you, by way of a taster, with a short quote from the synopsis of The Woman in the Moon written by Martin Wiggins in his excellent British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue:

When the shepherds of Utopia protest that, unlike all other creatures, they have no mates, Nature produces one she made earlier: a female statue, which Concord animates by joining spirit with flesh, and to which Discord gives a tongue; Nature names her Pandora.

Go see it, if you can!

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.