Monday, July 28, 2014

Julius Caesar at the Globe: Why Tony Blair should Give This a Miss.

Julius Caesar was a high-stakes venture for Shakespeare. He had invested heavily in the new Globe Theatre, and this was its opener in 1599. Shareholder, playwright, actor . . here was the collision of business and art in one man. The business-savvy Bard would have been nervous as the first customers arrived. With its smell of freshly sawed wood and whitewash, those entering the Globe were testing an untried hi-tech virtual reality environment. With London reverberating with globalisation and scientific revolution, here among the groundlings one was at the very peak of modernity.

So what was the focus of this 4D sensurround - this leap into the unknown? The downfall of dictators. The first drums resounding around the Globe introduced the themes of power, order, revolution and chaos to the Elizabethan masses. Shakespeare had a knack of identifying themes that would forever remain current, and Julius Caesar speaks volumes to us in this age of political disenchantment. One of the most macabre but accurate pronouncements on political change is Jacques Mallet du Pan's statement "a revolution devours its children." Looking back on the fall of the Berlin wall, and the prematurely named Arab Spring, we see a horrible pattern, as though carved in stone: the stagnation of rule; the toppling of the tyrant; the chaotic aftermath; and the reestablishment of order through tyranny 2.0.

Shakespeare understood this.

The play examines these stages with great insight, showing Cassius steering alpha male Brutus to spearhead the toppling of a burned-out Caesar. In this production, Cassius was played by Anthony Howell (of Foyle's War), who portrayed him less as a thin skinned Iago, and more like the bluff soldier he probably was. Tom McKay's Brutus was a well-adjusted, well-meaning man whose political and moral certainties break down in his failed attempt at justifying what he has done. I hope Tony Blair doesn't go to see this production, as parallels with his noble crusading would be obvious to all around him.

Initially, I was irritated by George Irving's insipid portrayal of Caesar, but then I realised that this was the point. Caesar was 56 and a husk of the man he once was. Referring to himself in the third person (even to his wife), Caesar believes in his own greatness and infallibility; and his once brilliant mind has now become blurred and paranoiac. Here then, we have Saddam, Gaddafi, Ben Ali . . . Caesar is all rulers who have lost the plot. His despotic apotheosis encompasses them all.

With these major themes being shouldered by key characters, it is amazing how Shakespeare rendered them human and sympathetic - all except the morphined Caesar. Christopher Logan camped up Casca beautifully, rendering a waspish survivor in dangerous tides. Luke Thompson highlighted Mark Antony's humane greatness - in contrast to the lovestruck middle aged has-been he is to be in the sequel, Antony and Cleopatra.

As I was watching the play, I was immediately struck by the playing of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia. I focused in, and realised that here was one of my favourite actresses, Katy Stephens. I last saw Ms Stephens as an unforgettable Tamora  in Michael Fentiman's production of Titus Andronicus at the RSC. And here she was now as Calpurnia, pleading with the vague, bloated Caesar to stay away from politics for a day. Katy Stephens is a superb actress who brings roles to life with insight and wit. Later in the play, she reappeared as a pleb ringleader who tore off the genitals of the mild poet, Cinna. You don't mess with Katy Stephens.

From the off, this production was fresh, invigorating and had great momentum. This owes much to Dominic Dromgoole's energetic direction, and the overall play was greater than the individual parts - a true ensemble production.

As I left, with my hands glowing, I thought of that original audience at its first showing, walking towards the Thames and muttering about what they had seen. Did it make them think of the declining Elizabeth? Did they feel anxious about order breaking down into chaos? Among them, Shakespeare himself would have drifted, and listened, and, no doubt heaved a huge sigh of relief. The first show at the Globe was over, his investments were safe, and his message to the world was out. Revolutions eat their children. If only Tony Blair had listened. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Kicking Against the Pricks: The Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham

Two plays in a day. Always a good idea. All day drinking, and double the fun. Not much to dislike there.

The two plays I saw at the RSC in Stratford this Wednesday worked really well together. Both were analyses of women out of sync. Both were based on real people, who flouted convention in Renaissance England. Both productions were imaginatively directed . . . and both were performed by the same hard working troupe.

Following a theatre’s work day like this was enlightening. Putting on plays is hard work, and the troupe worked their socks offs. Everybody from the stage hands, to the lighting and sound crew, put in a long demanding day. As time went on I amazed at the stamina of the performers -  their ability to remember so much material, and deliver it with such verve and wit. From the first words of Geoffrey Freshwater at 1.30, through to the last smiling sentence by Lisa Dillon at 10.45 that evening, the players were in make-up, onstage or waiting in the wings. Some of the actors had highly demanding parts in each play. Keir Charles, for instance, was rarely off stage in both productions.

Had I not seen both plays in the same day, I would have missed this - and the stamina of these remarkable performers. Had I seen only one production, I would have missed the transformation of the theatre, from Arden’s warehouse to London’s cobbled streets. As I sat down to the evening show I literally couldn’t believe I was in the same theatre.

Arden of Faversham centres on a real life scandal, which happened 41 years before the play was published. Arden was a self made business-man who acquired the former lands of Faversham Abbey, which had been dissolved by serial killer Henry VIII. Though legally owned by the Church, much of the pasture had been common to local farmers, and Arden’s enclosure marked the dispossession of the villagers. Arden’s wife, Alice, was rich, spoiled and bored, and embarked upon an affair with a low born local, Mosby. Together they plotted to kill rich hubby to gain control of his wealth. They were, however, rather incautious in their plans, involving Arden’s servants, an aggrieved villager and two memorable London hoodlums, Will and Shakebags.

Yes, Will and Shake-bags. Conventionally the play is listed as anonymous, however, there has long been speculation that it was written by Shakespeare. Others have claimed that it was penned by Thomas Kyd, or Kentish lad Christopher Marlowe. I don’t buy the Bard claim - to me, the writing seems too direct, with little of the thorough soul seeking that marks out the Swan of Avon. Marlowe and Kyd are more likely candidates. Indeed, the somewhat modern plain-speak, reminds me of the text of the Massacre at Paris ("Come. Let's go". Exeunt).

That said . . . Will and Shakebags? For some, this is as clear an allusion to the Bard as Rupert Greene’s denouncement of the upstart Shake-Scene. So, if Shakespeare wrote Arden, how likely is it that he secreted his name into his own play? Mmmm . . . well he was prone to overuse the word Will, wasn’t he? OK, how likely is it that the established superstar Marlowe would take a swipe at the new kid on the block? Shakebags was a common term for a thief at the time, so perhaps the name is not quite the shibboleth conspiracy theorists claim it is. The date of the play, pre 1592 is very early for Shakespeare, and late for Marlowe or Kyd. My money’s on Marlowe . .  or maybe a Marlowe/ Kyd production.

At the psychological/ philosophical level the play concerns material greed and lust. Such themes are embedded in wider social/ economic realities, such as the after-effects of the dissolution of the monasteries, the new commerce and commodification, and the brash nouveau riche - of which Arden and his wife were sour embodiments. The other harsh contextual reality, was the oppression of women. Whereas Alice Arden’s accomplices in the murder received death sentences, the judge reserved the worst punishment for her. Burning. At the time, for a wife to murder her husband shook the foundations of the social order, and doing so was the civil equivalent of regicide. It was, in other words, an unthinkable act . . hence the nationwide scandal when this crime was perpetrated; and the episode was deemed important enough to be included in Holinshed’s Chronicles, the historical source for many plays of the English renaissance. Unlike most of these works, however, Arden of Faversham concerned common people - traders, butchers and thieves - and this marks out the work as historically significant in its own right. Here was a revolutionary play on a shocking episode in recent history.

With these tabloid themes, and a script by Marlowe/Kyd/ Shakespeare, this was a sure fire hit, and indeed the play was performed by Shakespeare’s own troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s - perhaps at The Theatre, Shoreditch.  The themes, and the tight modern script resonate today in an England wracked by social change and the commodification of everything. To reflect this money-obsessed spiritual wasteland, director Polly Findlay set the reptilian parvenus in a chavtown in Kent cum Essex. I think Sittingbourne fits the bill beautifully - so close to (now posh) Faversham, but a microcosm of cultureless new millenium entitlement.

Arden is a cold hearted trader, who thinks only of money and his trophy wife Alice. Ian Redford plays the saturnine businessmen as a hollow man, a hungry ghost, who has everything but is never satisfied. As he is musing about his spouse’s indiscretions, she enters the stage - and what a sight that is. Actress Sharon Small totters into the narrative, and never really leaves it, entrancing with her lack of taste, her shallow lusts and problem-page philosophies on life. She is a mesmerising creature, witty and amusing, in a frothy kind of way, but depressingly vacuous - indeed, the embodiment of modern have-it-all celebrity culture. With her husband drifting off stage, Alice talks dreamily about her boyfriend, Mosby, a bit of rough from the wrong end of town. Then in he strides, the uber-chav - cocky, stupid and cultureless, and brilliantly played by Keir Charles - the first of two huge roles he played that day. What a charismatic performer - I feel like I know Mosby, in the same way as I knew, and avoided, Dogsy in the school yard.

Other superb performances stood out. Jay Simpson played the thief Will Black as a thin skinned assassin. Christopher Middleton portrayed the poisoner Clarke as a disgusting sexual predator, eliciting repulsed reactions from the audience. Not the kind of person one would like to encounter - even at a distance. Lizzie Hopley played an aggrieved villager who pursues the dismissive Arden about his appropriation of her land, eventually delivering a memorable curse, that momentarily pierces Arden’s thick skin. Hopley played two memorable parts that day, and they couldn’t have been more different - as you shall see.

On the whole, then, this was a highly creative and powerful performance of a play that speaks volumes to us today. As wealth becomes the only measure of success, and morality, education and spirituality are marginalised or lampooned, the reptiles of Faversham are in the ascendent. This play warns us all, that we should be worried.

Lots to think about there, then - and I did so during a couple of pints before the next play, The Roaring Girl. I returned and entered the transformed theatre, amazing at the industry of the stage hands. Very impressive!

The Roaring Girl was written a couple of decades after Arden, but it too was based on real events. The focus of the play is Moll Cutpurse, actually Mary Frith (1584 – 26 July 1659) who became famous for dressing like a man, publically smoking tobacco and hanging out with street ruffians. She was done on several occasions for minor transgressions, but later, turned into an informant and unlikely celebrity. A very interesting figure amidst Jacobean London, she became the subject of public interest and gained the attention of the entertainments industry. In 1610 John Day wrote The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside. Unfortunately, this play is lost in the midst of time, but isn’t it amazing that an eccentric 26 year old woman was having major plays written about her in the midst of Jacobean witch hunting?

Thomas Middleton and Thomas Decker were a little late off the mark producing their own play, The Roaring Girl, a year later in 1611. They were obviously fans of the gender bending reprobate, but unlike Day, who dramatised her life, they weaved her into an urban rom com. Incidentally, Thomas Dekker wrote the heartbreaking The Witch of Edmonton a decade later in 1621. He was obviously fascinated by, and sympathetic to, rebellious women such as Mary.

The Roaring Girl  was highly unusual in that it focused on an existing person who was defying convention.  What would the modern equivalents be? Joe Orton writing a play about Quentin Crisp in the 1960s? Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell?

The plot is complex and ludicrous. Sir Alexander Wengrave is dissatisfied with his son’s choice of a bride, because of her lack of an adequate dowry. The emotionally intelligent Sebastian thus hatches a plot to make his father suspect him of having an affair with the infamous Moll Cutpurse. He calculates that papa would be so horrified by this, that he would change his mind and welcome his marriage to the respectable Mary Fitzallard (superbly played by Faye Castelow). So far so simple, except that the narrative then splits into several subplots about marital intrigue among Sebastian’s acquaintances, most notably that involving Mrs Gallipot and the spivvy Laxton; and Mrs Openwork and Goshawk, who whispers that her hubbie has been keeping a whore.

At the centre of this domestic maelstrom is Moll, who dominates, manipulates, mentors and massages the various personalities.  She is quite quite wonderful. At the start of the play, the lights go up to reveal her, slouching cockily on a chair, lustily drawing on a cigarette and surveying the audience with confident, mocking eye. Lisa Dillon’s portrayal of Moll is fresh and energetic. She is in charge. She is the focus, and that’s the way she likes it.  Whereas the original Moll was damned for transgressing gender boundaries, Lisa Dillon transcends them - her Moll, is above all, true to herself. Like everyone else in the audience, I fell in love with this self-actualised being, and towards the end she lasered me with an amused look, took my hand and kissed it. “Thank you, darling” she said, retreating, mockingly mopping her brow. I almost swooned.

She mocked, carped, plotted and flirted. She sang, played electric guitar, acoustic bass, climbed the stage and danced. How could anybody else get a look in?

Surprisingly, perhaps, they did. Although Moll dominated, this was a tight ensemble performance and other characters were brought to life brilliantly. The other scene-stealer of the night was Lizzie Hopley’s portrayal of Mistress Gallipot. You may remember, that Hopley earlier played the decent, timid Mrs Reede, who placed a curse on Arden. Her portrayal of Mistress Gallipot couldn’t have been more different - knowing, flirtatious, mischievous, she toyed with her lines, sparking off and involving the audience. It was a thrilling performance.

Many of her lines concerned her beau, Laxton, played by Keir Charles - who thereby played two major cads in one day. Both were a joy to behold, slightly different in personality, but as manipulative and shallow as each other. Timothy Speyer was terrific as the aggrieved but understanding husband, Mr Gallipot - a very likeable character. Indeed, one of the differences between this play and Arden was that here in London there were streams of goodness, charity, and benign humour - while leafy Faversham resembled a crocodile pit.

Another fine performance was put in by Tony Jayawardena as the slandered Mr Openwork, who loved his wife, and beamed good will throughout. The contrast between this role and that of the brutal Shakebag couldn’t have been greater. Ian Bonar also put in an amazing double shift, with sharply different characters. Likewise, Ken Nwosu did double time in eye catching fashion, stepping in at the last minute to take on the role of the aggrieved Gull.

Of course, as all rom coms do, the couple get married and live happily ever after. At the end, we are left with Mol, who reflects on the events, and announces the appearance of the real Mary Frith on stage at the theatre in the near future. No doubt Mary would have been in the audience at the original play, and may have stood up at this point to receive the applause of the audience. That I would love to have seen.

Leaving the theatre I slipped into a pub to catch the tail end of the Argentina-Holland game. At the table in front of me, I spotted Peter M. Smith, who had played the cross-dressing Bawd in the Shakespeare Institute’s fine production of Pericles last year.  What a wonderful place Stratford is.

Later, as I cleaned my teeth and reflected upon the day’s events. I looked down to my hand. Kissed by Moll Cutpurse. The soap sat by the sink, begging a question.