Monday, March 24, 2014

Henry IV Part One by William Shakespeare. Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford upon Avon

Henry IV Part 1 is something of a misnomer, as the play is not really about Henry IV at all. This king's rule was founded on rebellion and regicide; and, given the political sensitivities of Elizabethan England, Shakespeare had to be cautious in his portrayal of a successful usurper. The result was that Henry was marginalised in his own two plays.

Before Henry took on the surname IV, he had been called Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt and grandson of the mighty Edward III. His royal credentials were thus impeccable; however, so were those of his effete cousin, Richard II, and he had been on the throne since he was ten. Ambitious, alpha male, Bolingbroke toppled Richard in 1399, and had him murdered a year later. Henry thus won the crown, but was thereafter that worst of things - a murderous usurper. A walking PR disaster.

For this reason, any mention of Henry IV at the time of Shakespeare ran the risk of royal rebuke. The first play in the Henriad tetralogy, Richard II, was thus watered down by Shakespeare's theatre company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men; with the vital "seizing of the throne" scene cut altogether. Henry IV Pt. 1, the second in the series of plays, was equally problematic. How to portray the newly enthroned challenger, without justifying rebellion and regicide? Shakespeare's solution was to keep Henry out of the picture for much of play, while concentrating on the other characters - Falstaff, Hotspur and Young Hal, the unruly youth who would go on to become the heroic Henry V. Portraying the youthful antics of a national treasure was safer ground than exploring the personality of a successful usurper.

Shakespeare shaped our understanding of many of the men and women who dominated England from the reign of King John to that of Henry VIII. Because Shakespeare rendered Henry IV as vague and formless, so he remains for most people today. The king's loss of profile was our gain, however; and, instead of a royal lead role we get three inflated characters - one, more inflated than the others.

The story of Henry IV is quite simple. Having disposed of Richard II, Henry was haunted by the murder; and was gripped by uncertainty, and a desire to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to atone for his sins. Meanwhile, there were rumblings of discontent among influential elites in the North, in Wales and in Scotland. Power was deserting the directionless monarch. On 1st July 1403, Henry received a message from Percy, Earl of Northumberland, demanding twenty thousand pounds in alleged debts to him and his dashing son, Henry, the Hotspur. Percy had been one of the king's co-conspirators in the overthrow of Richard, and this was an outrageous and disloyal provocation. In modern parlance, the King had been dissed, and was well pissed.

The flashpoint in the narrative comes when the campaigning Hotspur takes Scottish prisoners, but refuses to hand them over to Henry. The angry king summons the wayward Percys, and their ally Worcester to assert his authority; but the talks go  badly. Upon leaving, the turbulent noblemen resolve to revolt, and they make alliances with the Scots and Welsh against Henry.

Meanwhile, the king is preoccupied with the general uselessness of his son, Henry, or Hal. He has received continuous news feeds that the youthful prince is partying day and night at the Boar's Head, Eastcheap, with the notorious old scoundrel, Falstaff. Confronted with this political crisis, Henry's rage and frustration are made worse by his inability to rely on his son for support. Hal has shown no interest in - or aptitude for - proving himself in battle. With Percy's challenge, conflict was now inevitable, and here was the perfect opportunity for the prince to earn his spurs. Henry rues the contrast between his wastrel son, and Northumberland's pride and joy, the dashing, chivalric, Hotspur. In once scene Henry wishes his son had been swapped with the headstrong, but more worthy young warrior.

Hal, however, has been learning from his adventures into the underworld. With such a stern, distant father, Hal had rebelled, and found himself a genial, proxy father-figure in Falstaff - one through whom he learned much about life, love, morals and vice. For much of the proceedings, Hal and Falstaff are in playful conflict; and through Socratic cuts and thrusts, the themes of life, honour, honesty and duty are explored.

When the call up comes, the emotionally intelligent Hal is up for the fight, knowing that in order to redeem himself to his father, and the court generally, he will have to excel on the battlefield. This he does, and in the thick of the bloodshed we see young Hal transform into the man who would eclipse his father as Henry V. The young prince leads an army in aid of his father and indeed saves his life. In a climactic scene, he fights and defeats the dashing, uber-warrior Hotspur. Father and son are reconciled.

All then is well, for now.

The text is based heavily on an anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry V, which was popular in the last part of the sixteenth centuries, played by troupes up and down the land. On one occasion in 1587, the crack team of the Queen's Men visited Stratford upon Avon, and performed the play; and it is highly likely that Shakespeare was in the audience. Ten years later, the Bard revised and refined the existing narrative and characters to great effect.

In the original play that so impressed Shakespeare in Stratford, there was an outrageous fat old Knight called Sir John Oldcastle, who drank and fornicated in equal measure. In rewriting the narrative, Shakespeare retained the character and his name, but fleshed out the old knight, turning him into a giant, Dionysian presence. Then something happened that changed the play forever. In 1596, the Lord Chamberlain, patron of Shakespeare's acting company died, and was replaced by Lord William Cobham, who took no pleasure in theatre. The new puritan firebrand, had Sir John Oldcastle as an ancestor, and insisted that the name of his saintly, protestant forefather be respected. Shakespeare thus decided to change the character's name to Sir John Falstaff - also a real man who knew Henry V. Falstaff was a famous debaucher who owned a pub cum brothel in Southwark called - would you believe it - The Boar's Head (the name of the inn in the play). Shakespeare toyed with this change in the character's name when Hal called Falstaff  "my old lad of the castle." Oldcastle was the character's original name. The Castle was another notorious brothel in Southwark.

The play is dominated by the rebranded Falstaff, the fat, dissolute old knight of the realm, who - through battles, affairs and gallons of sack (fortified wine) - has perfected a strangely coherent moral philosophy. Comic, wise and disgusting in equal proportions, he is one of Shakespeare's greatest creations, a favourite with audiences ever since. Queen Elizabeth was a particular fan of the genial debaucher, and demanded that Shakespeare write a further play - a comedy about Falstaff, where he falls in love. Shakespeare obliged in the brilliant Merry Wives of Windsor, which included the Henriad's cohort of supporting characters, such as the tart with a heart, Mistress Quickly, and Bardolph, the ruddy alcoholic. Perhaps concerned that he was becoming a one trick pony, Shakespeare killed the roaring libertine off early in Henry V.

The performance at the RSC was of course, quite brilliant. Anthony Sher was mesmerising, as Falstaff roared, chuckled, reflected and philosophised while drinking his beloved sack. This was a life affirming performance, and I loved every second of Sher's embodiment of the libertarian rogue. To play Young Hal to Anthony Sher's Falstaff must be a daunting prospect, but Alex Hassell showed no reserve as he caroused, laughed and teased the old buffoon without mercy. Hal's gradual transformation from partying rich kid to leader of men was superbly realised.

Antony Byrne is one of my favourite actors. I first saw him as Mowbray in Richard II, and loved his alpha, swaggering performance. In this he played a similar character, the Early of Worcester, who betrays Henry. Again the performance was butch and brilliant. Meanwhile, Trevor White played the dashing Henry Hotspur was enormous energy, bringing a danger and unpredictability to the role that took the breath away. The scene with his wife, played by Jennifer Kirby, was hair-raising in its intensity, with the actress matching his brutal energy with finely observed cleverness and guile. Whereas Jennifer Kirby's role was short, her performance of it was as memorable as other more major roles.

Some performances of smaller roles also caught the eye. Youssef Kerkour played the Earl of Westmoreland with authority, and a stage presence that belied the limited lines. Martin Bassindale played Peto with freshness and immediacy; and nailed the key line in one of my favourite parts of the play, "Falstaff!—Fast asleep behind the arras, and snorting like a horse."

On the whole, then, this was a dazzling, energetic and hilarious production of a brilliant play. Falstaff stole the show of course. That's just how Shakespeare intended it. Having Antony Sher as Falstaff could have meant this role completely outshone everything else. However, Sher's generosity as an actor is such that, as he dazzled and delighted, he allowed the others to shine too.

The only character who didn't fizz was Henry IV - just as Shakespeare, and the fine actor, Jasper Britton, intended. The eponymous lead character was not the lead role after all, making this a strangely radical, imbalanced kind of play. With Falstaff in it, it was bound to be.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Witch of Edmonton, by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. RADA, London

The Witch of Edmonton was written in 1621 in the later years of King James' reign. Since an early trip to Denmark had sparked an interest in the dark side, James became obsessed with witchcraft, writing a whole book, Daemologie, on the topic in 1597.

With such royal encouragement, it is no coincidence that James' reign festered with witch hunts and accusations of devil worship - in Scotland in particular. In his early fervour in the 1590s, James himself had personally attended the trial and punishments of many unfortunate, marginal women. Understandably, then, this climate of moral panic by royal appointment had an influence upon the theatre of the time; most notably in Shakespeare's Macbeth, which was obviously written with the regal patron in mind. The Witch of Edmonton, is perhaps the most notable other Jacobean drama of the genre; however, it takes a more ambiguous moral line on Britain's weird sisters than the Scottish play.

The Witch of Edmonton is about a real case in London in early 1621 - the year the play was written. The character at the centre of the the narrative was a real woman, Elizabeth Sawyer, who was accused of consorting with the devil, and putting spells on the good people of Edmonton - a small sheep rearing town, eight miles from the City. An Anglican minister, Henry Goodcole, visited the desperate woman in Newgate Prison during the time of her interrogations, and wrote a popular pamphlet on the episode, The wonderfull discouerie of ELIZABETH SAWYER a Witch, late of Edmonton, her conuiction and condemnation and Death. Together with the relation of the Diuels (or devils). The poor destitute was executed on 19 April in Newgate Prison - one of hundreds of women tortured and executed during James' rule.

The play was a collaboration by three notable figures in Jacobean theatre, who would all have rubbed shoulders with Shakespeare on a regular basis. William Rowley was a larger than life actor, famous for his clowns. As a playwright he wrote many comedic parts for himself, collaborating with others, notably John Fletcher (Shakespeare's protege, and writing partner on Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost play, Cardenio). This networking of creatives lay at the heart of the cultural high point that was the Elizabethan/ Jacobean golden age. As now with American television comedies, accomplished individual scriptwriters would come together to pen brilliant, incisive shows.

Thomas Dekker was the oldest and most established of the collaborators. As with many at the heart of London theatre at the time, he had an eventful life. He once spectacularly fell out with Ben Jonson, to the point where they were mocking each other in their scripts. In 1599, he produced what became his most famous play, The Shoemaker's Holiday. He was, however, a perennial profligate, and struggled with debt throughout his life. From 1612, at the height of his powers and fame, he spent seven years in prison for a debt offence (owing forty shillings to the father of John Webster, author of Duchess of Malfi). Emerging with white hair, he was quickly back to work, and wrote this play a couple of years after his release.

The youngest of the trio, John Ford came from a typical background for a playwright at the time - Oxbridge, then an early training in Law (in this case at the Middle Temple). Ford was a brilliant writer who produced plays that explored the dark side of life, most notably in 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore - which has a rather comedic title to the modern ear, but is actually a bleak examination of incest.

The Witch of Edmonton itself weaves two narratives together. The first is the story of the demonisation of an old eccentric woman, Elizabeth Sawyer by the people of Edmonton. The play highlights how the odd casual insult to a marginal woman back then, could quickly escalate to a full blown alarum about demonic possession. The fact that the script is based upon real events makes the victimisation of Elizabeth harrowing to watch.

Key to the whole narrative is the point where the despondent and desperate woman ultimately appeals to the devil to take revenge on her tormentors. A demonic black dog duly appears, which demands her soul for his help. Throughout much British history, black dogs were considered malicious - and used as a potent symbol of evil. A particularly infamous spectre at the time was the Newgate black dog, a spirit that appeared near the notorious prison there. Indeed, Newgate Prison was the place where Sawyer was tried and executed.

The black dog is the link between the two narratives. In the second plot, a young couple have just got married in secret because of the threat of being exposed. The young man, however, is obliged to return to his father's house, and is coerced into a second marriage by his father. Tormented by his duplicity, the bigamist is touched by the demon dog, and murders his new bride. He also is hanged at the prison. Two routes to the same fate. One cause of both - the evil "black dog".

RADA is a wonderful modern space, with three public stages - and three plays were running concurrently when I attended. The bar was therefore packed with lively, chatting theatre types. Luvvie central. As I waited for the call, Jonathan Pryce sat down next to me.

The theatre was intimate but airy, with a deep stage. The director, Philip Franks and designer, Adrian Linford, took full advantage of the stage space, and used the depth well - transforming it from a rubbish tip, to a shop, to a bar, to a prison, with swift positioning of props.

This being RADA, the cast were wonderful, without exception. However, certain performances did stand out. In the opening scenes, Tom Hanson played the dissolute Sir Arthur Clarington with engaging mischief and dark wit. Phoebe Pryce played the vulnerable, wronged, Susan Carter with a deep sensitivity - and marked her rapid descent from vivacious girl to murder victim with a skilful tragic lightness. I think she would be perfect in the role of Rosalind, or Lady Macbeth.

For me, however, the star of the show was Eliza Butterworth, who played the witch. Her portrayal of a downtrodden, defiant woman at the edge of society - and sanity - was chilling and heartbreaking. There was a tone of brutalised disappointment in her voice; a fragility in her defiance, that was very moving and real. Bravo to Eliza Butterworth - indeed bravo to all the cast, and the set designers for putting on such an entertaining and stirring performance.

As I walked out of RADA through the echoing streets of Bloomsbury, I reflected on the cruelty of British society throughout much of its history. If one had a tic, or epilepsy, or Parkinson's or Tourette's in the sixteenth century, one faced taboo, prejudice and continuous threat of insult or panic. If one was a bit vague, or odd, or different - particularly as a woman - then one was vulnerable, with little protection from the state; which - as we have seen - was often the main mover in these kinds of zealous alarums.

Outside the Tavistock Hotel, I was passed by three laughing student types - one with a nose stud and purple streaks in her hair; all linking arms. How much better things are today. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Massacre at Paris, by Christopher Marlowe, Rose Theatre, London.

The Massacre at Paris concerns the horrific events around St Batholomew's Day in August 1572, when tensions between Catholics and Protestants blew French society apart. In three days of carnage, Catholic mobs slaughtered over three thousand men, women and children in the streets of Paris. As the massacres spread out across the country, a further ten thousand people were murdered in other cities around France.

This ethnic cleansing was the most shocking outrage of the time, and sent tremors throughout a Europe riven by confessional tensions. Christopher Marlowe was only eight years old at the time of the massacre, but he would have experienced its aftermath at close quarters, as Huguenot refugees from the continent flooded into his home town of Canterbury. Such events and their consequences are all too familiar to us nowadays, of course.

As a Cambridge Uni spy working in the wake of the massacre, Marlowe probably knew people who had witnessed the bloodbath first hand. By the time he had grown up, the event had reconfigured England's security and foreign policies; and it is no coincidence that, as a young adult, Marlowe himself was involved in a spying mission in a Catholic seminary in Rheims. In his later guise as a playwright, Marlowe saw the potential appeal of a play on the subject, and drew on his knowledge of those three days and their aftermath to write the Massacre at Paris. Nowadays you would file the play alongside movies like The Hurt Locker, Hotel Rwanda and 9/11; and it suffers the same pitfalls as more recent post-genocide dramas - how to manage political bias; how to weave in emotions other than horror and outrage; how to portray violence in a way that does not become slasher porn. The Massacre does not successfully surmount these problems - but really, how could it?

That said, it is an important example of theatre being used for the consideration of serious current events. At the time of its composition, Elizabethan guidelines on theatre - upheld by the Master of the Revels - proscribed controversies about religion, or the portrayal of living, or recently living, people. Marlowe's play brazenly flouted both of these conventions, and he got away with it. Perhaps the reason for this, is that Marlowe had produced a powerful piece of anti-Catholic propaganda - one very much in tune with the ongoing religious persecutions in England. An uncharitable reading of Marlowe's Massacre is that it is not a piece of liberal hand-wringing about genocide - but is instead a highly politicised demonisation of England's papist Enemy Within. The play thus stands as a problematic example of media bias in times of ethnic strife.

So, bravo to The Dolphin's Back and the Rose Theatre for tackling this troubling text. The Rose was the first theatre to be built south of the Thames. Erected by impressario, Philip Henslowe, in 1587, it premiered all of Marlowe's plays, with great actors such as Edward Alleyne pounding the boards. This couldn't have been a more different production to the brilliant one man show of Faustus I saw at the Rose last month, starring Christopher Staines. Here we got full ensemble, great costumes and a huge dose of collective enthusiasm.

The Director, James Wallace, was faced with a highly problematic task, not simply in terms of subject matter, but in terms of the patchy text that has survived to today. He dealt with some more pedestrian passages cleverly, allowing them to provide naturalistic, somewhat modern, reprieves from the more ornate language. I found the uses of plain demotic, as in "Come. Let's go" (Exeunt) refreshingly direct. No rhyme. No clever twist or barb. Fine.

The direction was great throughout, with inventive use made of the wide open spaces behind the stage. The acting was terrific, with each of the cast committed and convincing. Four performances stood out for me. Kristin Milward was chillingly charismatic as the manipulating Catherine de Medici. John Gregor carried the narrative and much of the action with an intense study of the evil, ambitious Duke of Guise; a man obsessed with Caesar, embodying perverted religiosity. Lachlan McCall played the aggrieved, protestant leader, Henry, King of Navarre with infectious, heroic charisma. For me, McCall's performance highlighted the resemblance between the King of Navarre and the later figure of Shakespeare's Henry V. There is little doubt that the Bard of Avon will have seen a production of the Massacre, so maybe there is indeed some of Marlowe's Navarre in the later Henry. James Askill, meanwhile, gave a clever and highly entertaining portrayal of the Duke of Anjoy's journey from murderous brat to dissolute king - a really wonderful performance that reminded me of Peter Ustinov's Nero, and was none the worse for that.

Overall, then, the play was superb, inspiring and insightful, not just about Elizabethan times, but our own. I don't believe in star rating systems, but if I had one, I would give the Dolphin's Back production of the Massacre at Paris five stars. Well done to all involved. And if you haven't already got a ticket . . . well what are you waiting for?

The Massacre at Paris by Christopher Marlowe runs at the Rose Theatre, Bankside until 29th March. You can book your tickets here: