Come see a new Shakespeare play! *

Double Falsehood, Union Theatre Southwark, 5 February 2011

Mokitagrit’s Double Falsehood was advertised not just as a piece of theatre, but also as an historic event and an educational opportunity. We were invited by the production posters to “Discover a forgotten Shakespeare” in the “first professional revival since 1792”. The director’s note in the free programme engaged us to debate the play’s authenticity once we had seen “the play as published by Arden”.

All this was done in the name of wresting the piece from the clutches of the academics and giving the theatregoing public a chance to draw their own conclusions.

However, the programme made no mention of the fact that Double Falsehood was by his own admission Lewis Theobald’s adaptation of the various allegedly Shakespearean manuscripts he claimed to possess.

We were informed that the play had been “pilloried since the impresario Lewis Theobald presented it as a lost Shakespeare in 1727”, as if he had come across the manuscript, blown the dust off and then had it performed by a company of actors.

It would have been relatively simple, given the total word count of the programme, to have summarised the play’s history and the current state of debate as to its significance. Or the programme could at least have summarised the position of the editor of the text the production intended to present.

How can we engage in a debate about the authenticity of the play without an informed account of its provenance?

What does Brean Hammond, the editor of the Arden Shakespeare edition of Double Falsehood, actually say about the play in his introduction?

Evidence

Taking account of various forms of evidence, he states that “… Double Falsehood is a palimpsest that contains elements dating back to c. 1611-12, elements dating to the mid-1660s, and elements first introduced in the mid-to-late 1720s.”

He restates this idea later in his introduction: “… the play is a radical adaptation of a Shakespeare-Fletcher collaboration probably already subjected to a layer of adaptive revision in the Restoration period.”

Brean Hammond also largely endorses and quotes the opinion of G. Harold Metz who wrote: “In essence, Double Falsehood is mainly Theobald, or Theobald and an earlier adapter, with a substantial admixture of Fletcher and a modicum of Shakespeare.”

This makes it difficult to justify the bold assertion made in the first eight words of the programme that we were about to see “Double Falsehood by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher”.

The other problematic claim is that the performance was an unembellished presentation of the play as published.

The director did admit to some changes including the gender switch of a secondary character and the location of the action near a monastery. But we were assured: “I’ve made no significant cuts or changes. This really is the play as published.”

But an account of some key elements of the performance should underline why this production was very much a unique interpretation, adding yet another layer of adaptation to those the play had already undergone.

Having seen the Union Theatre’s previous ‘premiere’ production of Double Falsehood by KDC back in September 2010, I was in a position to assess the impact of changing the gender of Leonora’s father Don Bernardo to her mother Donna Benita.

It worked very well. The male Don Bernardo was widowed and had taken to fussing over his daughter and becoming very emotional about her prospects in marriage. This meant that his words could be transposed almost seamlessly to a female character and work convincingly. This was particularly true later in the play when the character is criticised by the older male characters for crying too much.

However, if the play as written featured a fussing, tearful man taking on something of a motherly role, then the reassignment of the role to a woman normalised that behaviour rather than showing it in its original context.

But this was nothing compared with the main change to the play.

Stealing virtue

Fresh from dispatching Julio, his rival in love for Leonora, on an errand to court, the wayward brother Henriquez set about pursuing another woman called Violante. There are references to her lowly social origins throughout the play. This status was indicated here by making her a maid attending on Leonora. This was a valid and intelligent way of bringing out an aspect of her character and also explaining how she might have come to Henriquez’s attention.

The text of the play shows Henriquez courting Violante at her window. Having failed to impress her, she exits back into her room and Henriquez bewails his fate, bringing the first act to a close. At the beginning of the second act, he is observed by two other characters in a disturbed state mulling over the unseen rape he has perpetrated on Violante. In the following scene, Violante sits alone and describes the shame she feels at her violated condition. Her maid brings her a letter sent by Henriquez by way of a brush-off.

As expected, the production showed us the courting. Violante was quite sarcastic towards Henriquez when disputing the sincerity of his advances. His various entreaties did not succeed in winning her over and she exited to the side of the stage. Henriquez then whistled a signal to his servant who forcibly threw Violante back on stage. Henriquez then struck her in the face causing her to fall to the ground.

Henriquez soliloquy of demission then became a cruel verbal assault on Violante as he straddled her prone body, undid his trousers and engaged in a non-consensual sexual act right there in front of us. A couple of angry thrusts accompanied by some bitter words and he was done. The self-loathing of the original speech was transformed into a misogynistic diatribe.

Violante lay turned away from the audience as the action of the play moved immediately into Henriquez words in act two, but the observing characters Fabian and Lopez were cut so that it became a soliloquy.

Spitting on her body and getting his servant to supply some cash which he contemptuously threw at her in ‘payment’, he sat and discussed the morality of his actions with his victim lying motionless behind him.

Henriquez, instead of calmly assessing the situation at some remove, was plotting his shift in attention back to Julio’s lover Leonora and showing his lack of concern for Violante within her earshot.

After Henriquez exited, Violante recovered from her ordeal and, still sitting on the ground where she had been assaulted, discussed her shame with tear-stained eyes. A letter was dropped on her by Henriquez’s man informing her that she was now surplus to requirements.

Changes

Staging the rape in this manner changed nature of play, changed the nature of both characters and shifted the centre of the story so that it became Violante’s. The whole Julio/Leonora plot then took second place, whereas in the previous KDC production it was at the centre.

It also meant that when the Violante later encountered the priapic Master of the Flocks, we had the truly sickening experience of seeing the beginnings of another potential rape. The same situation arose with a man trying to overpower her. In the play as written, this unsuccessful ravishment is the first actual sexual aggression that we see. However, in this production it became an uncomfortable reminder of a brutal act we had already witnessed.

Although there is some leeway in interpreting how actions should be fitted to words, there can be no doubt that any Jacobean, Restoration or Georgian production would not have had a character appearing to pleasure himself on the public stage, as the Master of the Flocks did here when unable to control his desire for the girl.

Violante’s position at the centre of the story was then compounded at the conclusion of the play. The action came to a conclusion when Julio and Leonora, the couple that Henriquez tried to split, were reunited and Henriquez and Violante were reconciled. Various plot strands were tied up with Henriquez being persuaded and/or embarrassed into doing the honourable thing. A double wedding was in the offing.

But the director added a small scene without dialogue in which Henriquez unclasped his hand from Violante’s and scowled discontentedly at her. This clearly implied that the reconciliation as indicated in the text was a false one, making the ending of the play an unhappy one.

Despite protestations about not making significant changes, the final outcome of the play was effectively rewritten.

This kind of reworking happens in the theatre all the time. The National Theatre’s recent production of All’s Well That Ends Well undercut the happy ending enjoyed by Helena and Bertram by having the newlywed couple stare at each other in shock and disbelief at what they had one. But it is not acceptable in a production that claims to be putting forward the play as printed.

Interval

The interval came when Julio revealed himself at the wedding of Leonora and Henriquez. He pulled back his monk’s hood and the lights went down as he cried “Mine is the elder claim”. The second half began with a repeat of this line, continuing with the action. This seemed to be an idea borrowed from the David Tennant Hamlet where the interval was placed at the moment Hamlet was apparently poised to kill Claudius at prayer.

In the text as published, Roderick and Henriquez decide to gain access to the convent where Leonora is staying by pretending to transport a body to a funeral. Henriquez remarks that a cortege with a coffin has just passed by so they can hire the coffin from them. In performance, this lucky coincidence seems like an all too convenient plot device and can raise a chuckle.

In this production, the coffin was onstage throughout the performance up to that moment and the pair just pointed to it as if it had prompted the idea. This tidied up the story and made it more credible. But the comedy of the convenient plot device is part of the character of the original story and this staging removed it.

There was also one minor rearrangement of the text that produced a notable result. In the final scene of the play when order is being restored, the Duke has a long speech about parental authority that begins “The voice of parents is the voice of gods”. Coming at the dramatic conclusion of the play, it forms a stodgy moralistic piece of sermonising.

This production relocated it to just before Henriquez’s wooing of Violante. Removed from its context, the speech was rendered powerless and inconsequential. Rearranging the text to deemphasise unfashionable sentiments cannot be part of any production claiming fidelity to the original.

Taking all this into account, the production staged at the Union Theatre was therefore the director’s rearrangement of Brean Hammond’s edition of Lewis Theobald’s adaptation of a possible Restoration adaptation of a play co-written by Shakespeare and Fletcher.

Add to this the uncertainty as to Shakespeare’s precise contribution to the original, which was potentially only “a modicum”, and we are far, far away from discovering “a forgotten Shakespeare”.

On the plus side

Looked at on its own merits, this was a good production of an entertaining play with some pleasing features.

I liked the way that Adam Redmore’s Henriquez, as the villain of the piece, was portrayed as absolutely vile. He was so unpleasant that it almost begged the altered ending to the play in which he showed that his change of heart was insincere.

This villainy was neatly counterbalanced by Sam Hoare playing Henriquez’s good-guy brother Roderick. There were points in the performance where his appearance provided moments of calm amid the furore.

Jessie Lilley was required to play Violante at the dramatic and emotional heart of the production and succeeded in conveying the heartbreak and trauma the staging required with great skill.

Emily Plumtree’s Leonora was delicate and pretty, but whatever problems she encountered were vastly overshadowed by Violante’s story to the extent that she became an accessory to this more disturbing narrative. She was given the opportunity to slap Henriquez after being rescued from the nunnery, at which point she really had the audience on her side.

Stephen Boswell’s Camillo was bumbling to the point of being comical. But this was used to good effect when his jollity suddenly turned to anger when he realised in his conversation with Su Douglas’ Donna Benita, that he had been sidelined in the matter of Leonora’s wedding.

The frustration and madness of Julio was brought out by Gabriel Vick in the wilderness scene. Portraying madness on stage convincingly is never easy, but he was helped in this by the preceding brutality of Violante’s ravishment. The atmosphere of savagery this engendered, sanctioned the breakdown of civilisation in other respects, such as a character appearing besmeared with grime and in the grip of insanity.

Phil Willmott’s direction had some nice touches. Henriquez and Julio were shown at the side of the stage when the Duke and Roderick first discussed them, so that we could put faces to names. Julio gave Leonora a bracelet when he first assured her of his love, and she then returned this to him with her letter explaining her forthcoming marriage to Henriquez.

Once Leonora was called back inside the house by her mother, having handed her letter to Julio to the Citizen, we moved to the next scene in which Julio received the letter and discussed its contents. As this was happening, Leonora’s mother clothed her daughter in her wedding dress on the other side of the stage. This foreshadowed the impending wedding and also provided a good reason for her mother to have called her back in the first place.

Ongoing debate

Tickets for the production have been selling well and a West End transfer has been confirmed. It is likely that none of this would have occurred without the ‘forgotten Shakespeare’ label being attached to it.

But who can blame any theatre company for claiming Double Falsehood as a lost Shakespeare play when Arden started the ball rolling by publishing the play in their Shakespeare collection?

The recent revival in interest sparked by the Arden edition has, however, been valuable in raising awareness of Double Falsehood and the surrounding issues. This production was certainly grist to that particular mill.

For instance, are there scenes missing from the play published by Theobald that were included in the original Jacobean play? This production staged the rape and showed the aftermath of the coffin being used to abduct Leonora. It has been argued that a fuller staging of the abduction might have been part of the original Jacobean drama.

The RSC is due to attempt a full-scale reconstruction of the original Shakespeare/Fletcher Cardenio later this year. It will be interesting to compare that production with Mokitagrit’s and KDC’s Double Falsehoods.

* may not actually contain much Shakespeare.
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