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:

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