The World Beaumont Congress

This week I’m attending the World Shakespeare Congress, with hundreds of people from around the world. I thought it would be funny to do some (very light) trolling of the conference hashtag #WSCongress16 by tweeting about Francis Beaumont, who also died 400 years ago this year. Others have joined in – it’s fun to imagine the impossible absurdity of hundreds of Beaumontians gathering together to discuss their favourite author. Several of us have also enjoyed the idea of different factions arguing over the relative supremacy of their writers. So, in some tweets, Marstonians clash with Jonsonians, and Middletonians and Dekkerites either band together or fight each other, depending on who you listen to.

Naturally, these tweets, and others like them, are jokes. To my knowledge, nobody has caused a public disturbance by insisting that James Shirley is better than Thomas Heywood. And yet, jokes have meaning too – these tweets do suggest something about how we conceive of Renaissance dramatists. The focus on single authors – whoever, they might be – often results in the elevation of one chosen individual. Often, this elevation is itself brief. The victim in these instances is not Shakespeare, but the other writers who are left in the shadow of the newly elevated author. This ought not to mean an end to single-author studies, nor to single-author collected editions, both of which offer many great benefits, but those of us interested in the drama of the English Renaissance (and I very much include myself in this) might think of other ways of promoting our subject.

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.

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!

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.