Tipping the doublet

The Roaring Girl, Swan Stratford, 17 May 2014

Moll Cutpurse (Lisa Dillon) lounged in an ornate chair, one leg hooked casually over the armrest as she smoked a cigarette in insolent rebellion, looking very much the lad in her short hair, faded jeans, white short-sleeved shirt and boots.

She addressed the prologue of the play to the audience, explaining that long-awaited plays create high expectations and that based on the title alone, we might speculate about what type of ‘roaring girl’ we would encounter “For of that tribe are many”. Behind her dim figures of women represented other forms of roaring girl, making the point that Moll was just one of many types.

Music was played intermittently by a band called The Cutpurses.

The setting in the Victorian era was astute, as it is near enough to the present for an audience to feel a connection with the now, but also far enough removed for the characters’ dated attitudes to appear realistic.

Mary (Faye Castelow) and Sebastian (Joe Bannister) provided a fairly standard presentation of frustrated love, with the disguised heroine sneaked in by Neatfoot (Christopher Middleton) to see her intended, both of them very decent and wholesome types (1.1). But the choice to have Mary disguised and at first unrecognisable was obviously meant to trigger subliminally our thoughts relating to reality, disguise and true identity.

The parallel between the two principal women was further emphasised by the fact that he also called her Moll.

Sebastian told Mary that he intended to pursue another woman called Moll as a ruse to obtain his father Sir Alexander’s consent to marry her.

The men sat round the large table at Sir Alexander’s house came forward, allowing the man himself (David Rintoul) to look out at the audience in his “galleries”, a reference to his large library of books, of which he said “all of heads the room seems made” (1.2). The Swan was an ideal setting for this theatrical in-joke: it does indeed call its own upper seating areas “galleries”. The very male atmosphere of after-dinner conviviality continued.

Sir Alexander described a clearly invented meeting with another man who bemoaned his son’s dalliance with an unsuitable woman, before openly arguing with Sebastian about his “cutpurse drab”. This false tale, designed to rile up his son, established him as powerful and arrogant, and increased our sympathy for Sebastian when he spoke up for himself.

The text was edited to remove confusing references but this sometimes had the effect of changing the tone and significance of exchanges, such as in this scene the removal of the phrase “I’ll give thee rats-bane rather” from the exchange between Sebastian and Sir Alexander. This removed “rats-bane” but made Sir Alexander less aggressive.

Sebastian stormed off determined to have his desires, leaving Sir Alexander to encounter and recruit Trapdoor (Geoffrey Freshwater).

The reference to “Saints days” was changed to “bank holiday”, which did nothing but create a modern feel to the exchange because Sir Alexander was predicting rain.

Trapdoor looked and sounded like the kind of East End lowlife common in Victorian fiction and his chilling prediction that he, a roaring boy, would put down the Roaring Girl, set up an interesting expectation of conflict.

There was a musical interlude with Moll playing electric guitar as the set was changed to bring in the dinner table for the next scene. Still in modern clothes, this Roaring Girl was a contemporary figure, which created the subtle impression that her appearance subsequently within the action of the play was Moll going back in time. At the very least the shift in attire created a connection between past and present.

A three-part glass cabinet display was brought in for the apothecary shop, this tripartite structure was a nod to the original stage directions to have three shops side by side (2.1). The actual arrangement here was slightly different.

The gallants came across Mistress Gallipot (Lizzie Hopley) who was grinding tobacco suggestively. The text was changed to create a joke about a woman’s husband becoming bankrupt and “shag” becoming her fortune.

The double entendres with the tobacco pipe still worked and she purred as she handed Laxton (Keir Charles) his pipe: he said that he wished it was always handled that way. Mistress Gallipot was characterised by her silly but raucous laugh.

Laxton begged money from her which she handed over under the guise of a supply of tobacco. Even though the cash was in notes, it was still referred to as “angels”. The text editors probably baulked at substituting anything else.

The feather shop was represented downstage by mannequins with feathers, which worked well. “Simon and Jude’s rain” was changed to “bank holiday rain”, substituting a contemporary expression.

The seamstress shop appeared centre stage with the comical couple of Mr and Mrs Openwork (Tony Jayawardena & Harvey Virdi). He was a big man and his wife was commensurately buxom.

Moll made her first appearance within the play in a hat, a long skirt with a bustle, and a jerkin type top, looking almost feminine in comparison with her initial appearance in distinctly male gear.

This had the effect of making her first scheduled appearance less strikingly unusual than her previous ones as Prologue and musician. Her attire was comparatively conservative. Although very distinctive, she seemed less out of place than might have been expected. This seeded the idea that she was not as anarchic and unruly as her reputation had been painted, particularly by Sir Alexander.

Given her previous overtly modern male garb, any concession to the dress conventions of the time looked like conformity. They thought that she was the complete rebel, whereas the audience saw something more in line with the conventions of the period of the play’s setting.

She was accompanied by her female Maid (Joan Iyiola) who held an umbrella over her head. Laxton was obviously smitten. She had short hair but the long skirt bottom meant that at this stage she was not so obviously dressed as a man as she had been in her extra-textual appearances earlier on.

Moll visited the seamstress’s shop and Mr Openwork tripped up and fell to his knees in front of her groin, prompting his wife’s comment about him being in the “low countries doing a mischief”. Mistress Openwork touched her body saying she was blessed with “good ware” but complained about her husband’s lack of attention “for when I open it up I take nothing”.

It was interesting that by this point the other characters had been behaving in various underhand and lewd ways, suggesting and acting out all types of impropriety, but Moll herself was simply shopping: her only contravention of accepted mores being sartorial. It was therefore apt that this should be taking place amid clothes shops.

Gull (Tom Padley) – and not the original’s Fellow – entered for the first time and Moll overpowered him with her knife, taking revenge for the slight he had given her. She said she had been “insulted” rather than “abused”. A more warranted alteration was the substitution of “stallion” for “stone horse”.

Laxton was highly impressed and asked her out. The proposed locations were changed to Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common and Stoke Newington cemetery. She agreed and he paid her money, making it plain that this was a commercial transaction. The original locations of their agreed assignation, Holborn and Gray’s Inn Fields, were kept.

Moll gave a hint of her omnivorous appetite by saying she would like to test Mrs Tiltyard’s (Liz Crowther) honesty. This occurred in conversation with Jack Dapper (Ian Bonar), who with his extravagant dress and professed dislike of women was positioned as effeminate, certainly in comparison with Moll.

Goshawk (Peter Bray) tried to work on Mistress Openwork by suggesting that her husband had a suburban whore.

Trapdoor offered his service to Moll and vaunted his strength, but she easily tripped him and proved his boasting empty. Nevertheless she told him to meet her at Gray’s Inn later.

The shopkeepers headed off for Dalston, changed from the “Hogsden” of the original.

Sebastian stood in the rain at a location that was not obviously Moll’s house and spoke his heart, overheard by his father at the side (2.2). Sebastian became aware of the lurking presence and directed some of his comments pointedly at him. The RSC prompt book made it explicit that he spotted his father and tailored his speech to suit his audience, which is not in the original play’s SDs. “Yea, are you so near?” was turned into Sebastian spotting Sir Alexander.

Moll was accompanied by a Porter (Michael Moreland) who carried in a huge double bass in a case on his back. Sebastian was quite touching in his attempt to pick her up and she was very courteous in her response. She had “no humour to marry” and her comment that she liked to “lie on both sides of the bed” could have been taken to have a hidden meaning. As she put it herself, she was “man enough for a woman”.

Moll’s amazingly opaque phrase “Never choose a wife as if you were going to Virginia” was left in, but Sebastian mouthed it again with a puzzled expression. What would have been comprehensible to the original audience, here became a facet of Moll’s mysterious otherness.

Openwork caught up with her and tried to measure her for her Dutch slop. She hoisted up her skirt to reveal her tattooed legs and went along with the lewd innuendo of their exchange.

Sir Alexander came forward and openly challenged Sebastian about his proposed marriage to Moll. The word “ordinaries” became “pubs”. Sebastian defended Moll by pointing out that she was “loose in nothing but in mirth”.

At Gray’s Inn Fields it was possible to take an instant dislike to Laxton who we saw was a regular whore chaser (3.1). Moll now appeared in a top hat and tails with wisps of male facial hair on her chin, a look very reminiscent of the film character Albert Nobbs.

The point at which Moll encountered her most vicious adversary was also the point at which she donned her most fearsome battledress.

She confronted him with his villainy and threw the money envelope back at him. It fell on the ground and they fought over it. They used their canes in the manner of swords, which was a neat use of Victorian conventions. Moll eventually overpowered him and threatened his chest with a knife as she promised to “write so much upon your breast”.

Her attack on him was against lax morals and in defence of girls who wanted to maintain a reputation for chastity. As she put it “Has mirth no kindred in the world but lust?” She continued:

“I scorn to prostitute myself to a man,
I that can prostitute a man to me.”

This would be pretty strong stuff in any age, but taking account of the date of composition in 1611, it begins to look very radical.

Laxton’s phrase “lecherous voyage” became “sexy jaunt”, which was clumsy and probably unnecessary.

He timidly surrendered, leaving Moll to comment that she would like to meet all her enemies that way one at a time.

Disguise

Trapdoor turned up as arranged and Moll took advantage of her disguise to trick him before eventually revealing her identity.

Given her previous hints at her omnivorous tastes, Moll’s line “sometimes I lie about Chick Lane” took on extra shades of meaning. This was originally a reference to a notoriously rough area, but in the context of this staging the expression could be taken as a euphemism for bisexuality.

As they exited Trapdoor picked up the envelope containing the money abandoned by Laxton, but Moll forced him to hand it over.

The order of the last two scenes in act three was reversed, so that 3.3 followed next.

Sir Alexander was walking upstage with Sir Davy (Colin Anthony Brown) when Trapdoor caught his attention. He stepped through the iron gate separating them to speak with Trapdoor, pretending to his companion that this was some business arrangement. Trapdoor informed Sir Alexander that his son and Moll were due to meet at his house. “Your son and her moon” in conjunction was illustrated by Trapdoor poking his index finger in and out of a hole formed by the fingers and thumb of his other hand. They then both pretended to wrangle to provide a pretext for their meeting.

Sir Davy explained that he wanted to have his own son arrested so that prison might teach him a lesson. The character of “Curtilax” was changed to “Cutlass” (Michael Moreland again) but his partner “Hanger” (Ken Nwosu) stayed the same. They received their instructions and prepared an ambush.

Trapdoor now carried the umbrella over Moll’s head in the same way that her maid had done before. They entered on the gallery walkway. They sensed the presence of law enforcement and their references to smelling “carrion” and “I spy ravens” were changed to the more contemporary “something rotten” and “I spy filth”.

The officers took up position behind the metal gate upstage. Jack and Gull entered and were about to be taken, but Moll and Trapdoor shouted a warning to them enabling them to escape. However, the staging of this was a little vague and did not make it clear what was going on.

The final rhyming couplet in Moll’s parting speech was cut so that she exited just saying “I’m glad I have done one perfect good deed today.”

Mistress Gallipot scolded her husband (Timothy Speyer) before retrieving Laxton’s letter and teasing the audience with the trick, involving a delivery of medicinal herbs, by which it was sent to her (3.2).

She read its proclamations of love and stumbled over its references to figures from classical literature, adding “Who are all these people?”

When her husband discovered the letter she tore it into pieces rather than let him read it. At this point the acting style changed to Victorian melodrama, perhaps prompted by the decision to set the play in that era. The style worked very well as the couple comically over-reacted with heightened emotion to the situation. Mrs Gallipot invented a story in which she had been betrothed to Laxton but had married Mr Gallipot once Laxton had been presumed dead somewhere in France.

She managed to convince her husband that Laxton could be assuaged with thirty pounds to cover his expenses in coming to recover her.

The others arrived and Goshawk explained to Mistress Openwork that Gallipot had annoyed his wife, and that she might soon be similarly annoyed if her own husband came home late from visiting his whore. She rejected the idea, caressing herself and praising her “fresher meat” over any “stale mutton” her husband might find elsewhere.

There followed a brilliant sequence in which Laxton met the Gallipots, and Mistress Gallipot had to signal to him that she had “opened all before him concerning you”, a staple of many a farce and sitcom. Laxton had to work out the fake story that Mistress Gallipot had invented and then play along with it convincingly.

Master Gallipot mentioned the precontract, which Laxton had to hastily integrate into his version. Mistress Gallipot fell to her knees in supplication, a gesture which once again looked like a sexual act. But as soon as Laxton realised that Gallipot intended to pay him off he readily accepted the cash, leaving him to make a villainous snarling remark to close the first half: “You are apple-eaters all, deceivers still.”

The second half began with a table set up centre stage above which hung a low chandelier (4.1). This enabled Sir Alexander, assisted by Trapdoor, to prep the room by hanging his expensive watch and other trinkets from it, in order to trap Moll into stealing them.

Sebastian appeared with Mary (dressed in a fetching check three-piece suit, her hair tied up) and Moll who was wearing simple trousers and shirt, her chin seemingly more bestubbled than before.

Moll commented on how her tailor had fitted Mary with her suit and in so doing she seemed to linger by her in an overfriendly manner, hinted once again at her omnivorousness.

Sebastian and Mary kissed and he commented on how he liked her look and how her kisses seemed “worth a pair of two”.

The “viol” that Sebastian asked Moll to play was in fact the huge double bass that had been seen earlier. This was a much better instrument than the rather tame looking viol da gamba.

Moll played a song while strumming the bass with her fingers. The words of the song were slightly altered, but the phrase “those hypocrites” was added and at this point Moll paused for effect, indicating that it was the hypocrisy of those “halfwits… who call me whore first” that vexed her.

Moll passed the bass to Sebastian. She then noticed and retrieved the watch and other jewels from the chandelier. Sebastian recognised a sound made by his father and hastily pretended that Moll was his music teacher. She put on a French accent to add to her mystique.

They also decided that they had to hide Mary, so she ducked under the desk and then hid behind the large double bass, which was then comically repositioned each time that Sir Alexander moved so that Mary could crouch and hide behind it. This visual gag was extended to them letting go completely of the double bass at one point, so that the hidden Mary was holding it miraculously in place. She eventually took flight off one of the walkways.

Sir Alexander paid Moll with coins with holes as a trick: “These will I make induction to her ruin”.

The three mistresses Openwork, Gallipot and Tiltyard sat on chairs and had a gab (4.2). Openwork explained that Goshawk had tried to convince her that her husband was visiting a whore in Brentford, but was only doing so to try to “make me cry quack”, a phrase she explained by briefly flexing her knees apart.

The text was altered slightly so that Goshawk implied that he was running all three of the women and not just the two “mills” and “swans” of the text.

Master Openwork caught up with Goshawk and there was something confidently confrontational about his greeting to him.

Mistress Openwork accused her husband of having a dalliance at Brentford, which led into more melodramatic histrionics which provided some excellent comic relief. With Mistress Openwork saying things like “You have struck ten thousand daggers through my heart” the melodramatic excess seemed completely warranted by the text.

Openwork realised that someone had falsely accused him of chasing whores, which made Goshawk nervous at being unmasked. Mistress Openwork refused to name her informant. But when Openwork asked the other two women if they knew his accuser, Gallipot said no and Tiltyard said yes simultaneously before putting her hand over her mouth.

Openwork demanded that Goshawk tell if he knew, which he denied. This prompted the women to accuse Goshawk and he shamefully confessed. Despite the furious emotion that had preceded, Openwork forgave him and himself admitted that he had led Goshawk to believe that he had a whore at Brentford, but only to see whether Goshawk were as wanton as he had suspected. So peace and tranquillity were restored in an unlikely turn of events.

Goshawk had learnt his lesson and promised not to “deal upon men’s wives” any more.

Laxton entered disguised as a legal official in a wig, with a crutch and holding one leg off the ground to appear one-legged. He issued the Gallipots with a summons for more money relating to the precontract. After some bickering between Mistress Gallipot and Laxton, he was unmasked and the whole truth came out: that the story about the precontract had been a ruse, that Mistress Gallipot had been tricked into procuring him money, but that Laxton had not actually bedded her. She was now fed up with his tricks and constant demands.

Laxton then invented another story, claiming that he had only pursued her to establish if she were as constant as she had made out. Gallipot fell for this, to the extent that he invited Laxton to dinner while castigating his wife for being a tease. The obvious injustice of this tied in nicely with the overall theme of the play of men maltreating women.

Arrest

Jack thanked Moll up on the gallery for saving him from arrest (5.1). From this scene were cut Lord Noland, Beauteous Ganymede and Tearcat. Trapdoor was missing presumed lost after Moll realised he had been working for Sir Alexander.

As Jack was explaining that it was his own father who had arranged to have him sent to prison, Trapdoor entered on the main stage disguised as a Chelsea pensioner/war veteran. He limped in on two crutches, the visual resemblance between him and Dickens’ Tiny Tim prompted his remark “God bless us every one”.

Trapdoor tried to beg from Jack and Moll, who questioned him about his military service. His long rambling list of campaigns and the nationalities of his comrades did not impress. As he itemised the various places in Italy he claimed to have been, Moll repeated his “Montepulciano” under her breath in disbelief.

Moll pulled his eye patch away from his face when she confronted him with his lies.

Trapdoor had learnt beggars canting language and the discussion moved onto this. Jack wanted to learn it also when he heard Moll translating what Trapdoor was saying.

Trapdoor suggested (in cant) that Moll and he go out thieving together and then “wap” and “niggle”. Moll translated most of this but not the last term. Jack insisted on knowing, so Trapdoor demonstrated by referring to it as “fadoodling” accompanied by a lewd gesture.

The canting song was turned into a big musical number. Both Moll and Trapdoor acquired mics and the band came out to play turning it into a rap. Other members of the cast joined them and provided appropriate sassy dance moves. Everyone had a whale of a time as the canting song was blasted out, with the lines shared between Moll and Trapdoor.

However, the actual words of the canting song were indistinguishable so that it was difficult to discern what was being said.

The intended victims of the cutpurses were changed from the minor characters Lord Noland and Sir Thomas of the original text to Mary’s father Sir Guy Fitzallard (Ian Redford) and Jack’s father Sir Davy.

Moll observed the cutpurses and quickly explained their various job titles and tactics to Jack before intercepting stolen the wallet as it was thrown from one thief to another and restoring it to its rightful owner.

The original text’s joke about someone losing a purse “at the last new play at the Swan” worked beautifully here in the Stratford Swan Theatre with Moll giving a knowing look to the audience.

Sir Davy and Sir Guy asked Moll how she knew these people and why she was known as Moll Cutpurse. This was the cue for Moll’s long speech explaining that her knowledge of the criminal world did not make her an integral part of it, summarised with “Must you have a black, ill name because ill things you know?”

She had become known as Moll Cutpurse because of this but she did not care. Crucially, it was now Sir Guy who praised her “brave mind”.

The connection now established between Sir Guy and Moll, facilitated by the change to the cast in this sequence, would serve a useful purpose later.

At his house, Sir Alexander was in uproar as Goshawk told him that Sebastian and Moll were to be married but no one knew for certain where they were (5.2).

Sir Guy and Jack broke in upon them. Sir Jack was unhappy at Sir Alexander’s treatment of his daughter, but seemingly happy that he was now to be repaid by his son marrying Moll instead.

Amid the chaos, Sir Guy said that he would wager Sebastian’s revenues that he could prevent the marriage. In his desperation Sir Alexander similarly pledged that he would give Sebastian half his wealth if he would marry anyone but Moll. Sir Guy justified his decision by saying that he liked Sebastian because he had loved his daughter and thought that more money would make him choose someone of higher status that Moll.

Moll appeared briefly in her man’s clothes and was asked if this was her wedding gown before she disappeared again. She met downstage with Mary, who was holding a wedding veil. This created the immediate expectation that the next person to be seen wearing that veil would be Mary.

Goshawk tried to reassure Sir Alexander that no priest would marry his son to Moll. His comment that “it was never known that two men were married and conjoined in one” drew some murmurs from the audience in the light of recent legislative changes in the UK.

Sir Alexander repeatedly said that he would be happy whomever Sebastian married.

Sebastian entered accompanied by a veiled figure in a white wedding dress together with Mary’s father Sir Guy. Sir Alexander was overjoyed to see such a feminine bride at Sebastian’s side, but when he lifted the veil it was Moll grinning back at him and she proceeded to run amok with much glee.

Moll congratulated Sir Alexander that he would now be a figure of note for having her as a daughter-in-law rather than being the obscure figure he had been to date.

Sir Guy, undoubtedly as part of the general ruse, asked to be freed from his promise to give money to Sebastian, offering in return to accept Sir Alexander’s retraction of his pledge. But Sir Alexander was determined to press on.

Sir Guy took this as the cue to spring the trap and to call in the real couple: Sebastian entered accompanied by Mary in a dark coloured wedding outfit. Sir Alexander was overjoyed and apologised for rejecting her previously.

The fact that it had been Sir Guy who had encountered and praised Moll’s character earlier made it more credible that he had been recruited to Moll’s scheme through that bond of admiration.

Moll pointed out that she had had a hand in the scheme, to which Sir Alexander replied that he could not condemn her. After batting away that remark, she pointed out that Sir Alexander had made the crucial mistake of assuming that she would have automatically consented to Sebastian’s advances.

She riddled when asked when she would herself marry, and Sir Alexander admitted that he had wronged her too. Trapdoor confessed to having worked with Sir Alexander to ensnare Moll, obliging the now very contrite Sir Alexander to apologise once again. Moll returned the money he had give her for her music tuition, but he insisted he would “thrice double” the payment to “make thy wrongs amends”, before he joyfully summarised how happily this eventful day had concluded.

Moll stayed behind to deliver the epilogue, which was altered towards the end, so that she said:

“The Roaring Girl here herself shall hence upon this stage give larger recompense”

instead of the text’s:

“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, shall on this stage give larger recompense”.

This changed the original’s opaque reference to a reappearance by Mary Frith or the actor playing her, into a general statement about the character continuing to live on the stage beyond the bounds of this particular play.

Conclusions

The play that gave its name to the entire RSC season of female-centric drama was made relevant without cutting completely loose from its historical roots. The key was the production’s setting in the halfway house of the Victorian era.

An intelligent change to the casting of one scene improved on the original by giving Sir Guy Fitzallard a credible reason for assisting Moll.

The play teaches a moral lesson about making assumptions.

The Roaring Girl is a good girl really.

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Spectre

Arden of Faversham, Swan Stratford, 2 May 2014

The stage was full of action as the audience entered. Arden sat at a desk while his overalled workers packed the novelties imported by his firm into boxes which were then carried aloft by a hoist. The back of the set consisted of a large painting of an English village which was being dusted by someone whom we would later discover was Susan, Alice Arden’s maid.

This anonymous Elizabethan tragedy was played through in 1h 50m without an interval.

After a brief expository conversation between Franklin (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Arden (Ian Redford) about his wife’s infidelity, we met Alice (Sharon Small), the object of his suspicions (1). She was nervously comic and this set tone for the rest of the performance.

The production’s basic problem was that by starting in this comic vein and assiduously maintaining it, the tragic side of the play was neglected so that its conclusion felt extraneous. The mood was kept as jolly as possible for as long as possible for fear of confronting the audience with unpalatable ‘difficult’ drama.

But this clashed with the ending in which Arden is brutally and repeatedly stabbed and the guilty parties, along with one innocent person, are executed.

Characterising Alice as a sitcom-style frustrated housewife did not sit well with her subsequent burning at the stake.

The jokiness of Alice’s explanation of her calling out Mosby’s name in her sleep was on one level patently funny, but served as a pretext to render the entire play as comedy. There was very little indication that this was the “lamentable and true tragedy” of Arden of Faversham.

The characterisation of the other main cast followed this line.

Michael (Ian Bonar), the forlorn lover of Susan (Elspeth Brodie), had been recruited by Alice to kill Arden. But his ominous “I’ll see he shall not live above a week” did not feel like a credible threat.

Alice’s lover Mosby (Keir Charles) was a wide boy in a purple suit. This sub-comical persona positioned him as a figure of fun.

Clarke the painter (Christopher Middleton) was a ridiculous figure whose dull clothes, glasses and red facial disfigurement made him into a laughable misfit rather than a sinister conspirator. His lust for Susan, who was lurking all the while under the table cleaning and overhearing their conversations, was played as ludicrous. Clarke gave Alice and Mosby poison to put in Arden’s breakfast.

Alice’s “See where my husband comes” was funny and was soon followed by the suspicious Arden disarming Mosby by taking, not a sword, but a handgun that was stuffed down the back of his trousers.

Alice brought Arden the poisoned breakfast and she and Mosby sat and watched him eat it out of the corner of their eyes. Arden noticed there was something odd about the food and put it aside. Alice threw the bowl to the ground accusing her husband of suspecting her of poisoning him, a charge she tried to refute by taking a spoon and trying to eat it up herself.

Greene (Tom Padley), one of the tenant’s dispossessed by Arden’s land deal, wore an Adidas tracksuit that identified him as low class. His grudge against Arden made it easy for Alice to get him to procure her husband’s murder.

Mosby criticised Alice’s involvement of too many people in their plans. Susan was produced for Clarke to paw at. Alice’s comment that Clarke had made Susan blush was underlined by the way her cheeks were painted with red blushes making her look almost like a doll. There was also something doll-like about the way she was escorted away, crying uncomfortably.

Greene and Bradshaw the goldsmith (Colin Anthony Brown) met two lowlifes Black Will (Jay Simpson) and Shakebag (Tony Jayawardena) in the street (2). Bradshaw, who was wearing cycling clothes faintly reminiscent of a city commuter, did not want to be associated with Black Will and gestured to Greene that they should continue without stopping to talk to them.

But Black Will helped Bradshaw out by identifying the villain who had sold him the stolen gold plate, which because it had been found in Bradshaw’s possession had led to him being wrongly accused of the theft. Bradshaw’s long description of the villain was cut because of its doublet references.

However, Black Will held back the line to Shakebag about spending the money from the sale of the stolen goods until after Bradshaw had left so that it seemed that he had deceived him. Greene had given Bradshaw a letter to deliver to Alice, which would later be used to prove his complicity in the murder plot.

Greene paid the murderers to kill Arden and they enthusiastically took up the assignment.

Michael, now facing a challenge for Susan’s affections from Greene, read out a pleading letter to her which together with an Arden wind-up novelty was ready to be sealed in a padded envelope to be sent to his love (3).

Arden went into Franklin’s London house and the murderers waited outside. Shakebag produced a large jemmy which had previously been stuffed down back of his trousers. He practised swinging it and accidentally hit Black Will with it. This replaced the original text’s shop window accidentally dropped onto Black Will’s head. Shakebag tried to revive Black Will during which time Arden left the house and passed by them.

Greene and the murderers rounded on Michael and forced him to help them with their plan to murder Arden that night by leaving the house doors unlocked. From this point forth Black Will had a bandage round his head that served as reminder of the previous comic mishap.

Michael’s pangs of conscience, which we had previously seen, now obliged him to change his mind (4). He feared that the murderers would kill him too. His panic woke Arden and Franklin and the doors were found to be unlocked, after which they were secured.

The murderers entered with the stage in a total blackout to find the doors locked (5). The complete darkness was very odd and completely unnecessary. Dim light would have been understood to represent total darkness and the result was simply to create confusion. The sound effect of the door being tried was insufficient. This staging was perhaps made necessary by the set not allowing for the presence of a door, but one could have been set up temporarily.

Arden told Franklin about his dream in which he was captured like a deer (6). The original text’s reference to a “toil” was changed to the more comprehensible “net”. Arden’s description of his dream with its imagery of encroaching danger could have been given greater ominous weight to indicate the darker tone of the end of the play, but it felt like an intrusion into its overall gaiety.

The murderers intercepted Michael and he invented a story to excuse his failure to leave the house unlocked (7). Black Will put his knife to Michael’s ear as if ready to cut it off saying “This shall be your penance” but instead pulled the knife away and, laughing at his own joke, invited him to the Salutation inn.

As if to indicate his ambition to supplant Alice’s husband, Mosby sat at Arden’s desk for his soliloquy (8). This had overtones of Henry IV talking of how poor people sleep soundly and Macbeth’s paranoid desire to kill all his potential foes, but the speech fell flat because the character had not been previously presented to us as someone with that kind of tragic depth.

Bringing out the full comic potential of the initial scenes smothered the first inkling that this play was a tragedy that would end in multiple deaths. The audience was being fed comedy like sugar with the result that it developed a craving for more, to the exclusion of more nourishing dramatic sustenance.

Alice entered reading, not a prayer book to suggest piety, but a gaudily covered Bible: this did not suggest the level of seriousness that the sequence demanded. Alice appeared to have changed her mind about the murder of her husband, and Mosby was angry at this betrayal. When she tore the pages out of the Bible, this and their sudden seriousness looked barely credible.

They kissed and made up just as Bradshaw brought in a letter from Greene informing her of their failure to kill Arden in London. Bradshaw was offered a cup of beer, and he ran off mouthing “a cup of beer” as if really grateful for it.

Rifle

The murderers positioned themselves ready to attack up on the balcony, but fell into a comic fight until Greene intervened to refocus them on the job (9). While Arden talked with Franklin down below, Black Will put together a sniper’s rifle but failed to have it ready in time. Their complete ineptitude was hilariously highlighted by Shakebag consulting the rifle’s instruction leaflet.

Lord Cheiny (Joe Bannister) and his Man (Peter Bray) came running in wearing lycra running gear. The presence of multiple witnesses meant that the would-be murderers had missed their chance again. Their bickering attracted the attention of the men on stage who looked up, prompting the murderers to conceal themselves by standing still like posts or trees.

Lord Cheiny invited Arden to dine with him on Sheppey, which the murderers overheard providing them with their next opportunity for assassination.

Arden set off for Sheppey, allowing Greene to show Alice the poisoned crucifix he had prepared as a device to kill her husband (10). Clarke wore blue latex protective gloves to handle the toxic crucifix and he made Alice put on pair as well when she took it from him.

The stage filled with dense smoke to represent the fog as the Ferryman (Ken Nwosu) escorted Arden and Franklin across to Sheppey (11).

Shakebag and Black Will also became lost in the dense fog (12). After hearing the faint sound of Arden’s party passing by, Shakebag fell into the large open stage trap representing the dank marshy ditch and emerged covered in mud. He was helped out by the Ferryman who informed them that they had once again missed Arden.

Greene, Mosby and Alice discovered that this latest attempt had failed and the murderers vowed to catch Arden on his return. The plot in which Alice and Mosby were to confront Arden arm-in-arm was cut and its setup was therefore cut from the end of the scene.

The character of Dick Reede became in this production a Mrs Reede (Lizzie Hopley), who intercepted Arden to complain of about being evicted from her land (13). She had been previously shown trying to catch his attention, so that her approach here was the successful culmination of her previous strenuous efforts.

The fatal curse/premonition by Reede that the land Arden had taken would “be ruinous and fatal unto thee” was underlined by the back of the set turning dark red to suggest bloodshed and the ominous hand of fate.

But set amid the comedy of the failed murderers, this foreshadowing of the play’s tragic ending felt bolted on, an intrusion of seriousness into the continuing sitcom.

The entire sequence in which Arden discovered Mosby and Alice together and the fight between them, also involving Black Will and Shakebag, was cut. This was possibly to reduce the production’s running time, or perhaps it was felt that the elderly Arden could not take the murderers on in direct combat using modern weapons without killing them. The character of Arden was probably originally conceived as a younger and more vigorous than the man presented here.

The murderers met up with Alice and Michael and a plot was laid to kill Arden that night in the house (14). A dining table was set out.

The reference in the text to “tables” was changed to make it clear they were going to play “cards”. In keeping with the modern setting there was no mention of horses or Arden’s counting house.

Mosby brought Arden back and pretended to have fallen out with Alice with the result that Arden then begged him to stay. They drank champagne and sat down to play cards, while the murderers gathered downstage and watched.

Michael suggested that Black Will should creep between his legs which resulted in Michael sitting astride him and both edged forward to sneak up on Arden. This was inherently ridiculous and showed that even at this late stage, the production was intent of milking every last laugh from the plot.

On the key phrase “Now I can take you” Black Will wrapped a towel around Arden’s head, dragged him downstage and then stabbed him.

After repeated stabbings by the murderers, Alice seized a knife and stabbed Arden too.

This really was the point at which the comedy should have ceased.

Instead of placing the body in the counting house, they put the body in a large cardboard box and used the warehouse winch (no dining room should be without one) to hoist the box up into the air. Susan and Alice tried unsuccessfully to clean the blood from the floor, so rushes were strewn over it.

The dinner guests arrived and were plied with drinks. The asides between Michael and Susan in which he planned to poison Alice were cut.

This was to focus attention on the blood soaking out of the bottom of the cardboard box. This drew excited audience attention as some individuals pointed upwards at it to alert their neighbours.

The conspirators managed to persuade the guests to leave and then brought the box down. As they did this snow began to fall along the edges of the stage so that this zone represented the outside where the body was being deposited while inside represented the house. As the box was lowered, it was tipped on its side and the body dumped on the snow to represent its disposal outside, after which the conspirators moved back inside.

The watch entered the house, prompting Alice to act innocent by asking them if they had brought her husband home, but they had in fact come for Black Will.

Franklin announced that Arden’s body had been found despite the fact that it had just sat at the edge of the stage unseen and undiscovered by anyone else. This was a glaring hole in the staging. Franklin produced the hand towel and knife which would be the main evidence against the conspirators, but these had not lain with the body at any point and their appearance now looked strange.

Franklin pieced together the evidence which pointed towards Alice’s guilt against which she could only offer feeble explanations.

The separate scenes for Shakebag (15) and Black Will (17) were cut so that we then saw Alice’s and Mosby’s confessions (16). The actors picked up chairs and sat on them spread around the stage to rue their fate as isolated individuals rather than as a group conversation (18). A voice announced that Mosby and Susan were to be executed, Alice was to be burnt and Michael along with (the completely innocent) Bradshaw were to be put to death.

The Epilogue was spoken by Alice rather than Franklin. She explained the gruesome fates of those who had initially escaped, setting the final tragic note on proceedings.

Nothing in the previous 105 minutes had suggested this bleak conclusion so that it appeared incongruously tacked on at the end.

Conclusions

The RSC did not know what to do with this not-Shakespeare play. It was scared of putting audiences off with an unfamiliar antiquated work and so tried as far as possible to make it appear modern and ‘relevant’, a process which did not do the play justice. Turned into a semi-sitcom, Arden of Faversham was wrenched completely out of its historical context so that residual faithfulness to the text and story clashed with the production’s tacit desire to do away with them completely.

There is a spectre haunting the Swan Theatre: the spectre of One Man, Two Guvnors.

Lessons from a Mad World

A Mad World My Masters, Swan Stratford, 29 June 2013

When this production exploded onto the Swan stage, a good deal of its energy and confidence came from the fulfilment of the editors’ intention that the play should be immediately accessible to the audience.

The Sean Foley and Phil Porter edit of Middleton’s play removed a fifth of the original, “but what remains is about 97% Middleton”, said Foley in the programme. Rather than wholly rewrite the text, the editors demonstrated faith in the ability of the audience to understand Jacobean English, while gently assisting them.

They clarified obscure jokes and references, supplanting them with hilarious and clearly signposted humour that revelled in its juxtaposition with the original. The subtext of the edit was that ‘funny’ does not change, merely the precise phrasing of its expression.

This was a slightly more aggressive form of the kind of editing that is commonplace in more reverently handled Shakespeare productions. When in Measure for Measure, Pompey announces that “All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down” this is routinely changed to clarify that brothels are to be demolished.

Set in Soho in 1956, the production updated some character names to make the humour more obvious, so that we had Truly Kidman instead of Frank Gullman and Sir Bounteous Peersucker instead of Progress. More daringly, the Harebrains became Littledicks, while Gunwater the butler was renamed Spunky.

The brightly coloured Flamingo Club filled with guests and staff as Linda John-Pierre belted out one of the many songs that punctuated the production (1.1). Once she had finished, Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding) bounded after her and tried to steal a kiss. He and his cohorts Captain Oboe (Harry McEntire) and Sergeant Sponger (Ben Deery) were thrown out of the club, the stage rapidly transforming into dingy Ham Yard. A telescopic street lamp rose suggestively out a tiny trap door, as the riotous crew ended up among the back street bins.

The colour, noise and chaos of this initial sequence, at the end of which one of the characters sat in a dustbin with the lid on his head, seized the audience’s attention, had them laughing and expressed the manic energy of the play before the first proper line of dialogue.

Dick Follywit ended up with some women’s underwear on his face, and remarked that in his present condition even his uncle would not recognise him. This stunning realisation inspired his plan to enrich himself. His relative was “tremendously well-endowed” and a social climber whose so-called friends took advantage of his self-serving hospitality to “gobble him dry”.

He called on his associates to assist him; they responded by saluting him and in their confusion locked their arms together.

Follywit planned to visit his uncle disguised as a lord, with his associates pretending to be his chauffeur and butler.

Penitent Brothel (John Hopkins), as well as having an unchanged name, spoke in phrases that were unmistakably Middleton’s original, saying of Follywit “I tax his youth of common receiv’d riot”.

Having served up some easily digestible modernised English, the production did not patronise the audience by spoon-feeding them throughout. Instead it trusted in their ability to discern meaning in passages of Middleton that a more condescending editor could have rewritten wholesale.

Explaining his love for Mrs Littledick, jealously guarded by her possessive husband, Penitent paused for comic effect after saying that he was “constrained to use a prostitute” but then countered our expectations to reveal that Truly Kidman “corrupts and loosens his wife’s most constant powers”.

The meeting between Truly (Sarah Ridgeway) and Penitent in the alley was observed by the ever-watchful Constable (Dwane Walcott) who shone a torch at them.

Truly and her pimp mother sat outside the Moka coffee bar. Mrs Kidman (Ishia Bennison) presented her daughter with a gift from “her keeper” Sir Bounteous”. Given her profession and the double meaning of the phrase, we were not expected to believe Truly when she said “I’ve never had a pearl necklace before”.

In case there was any doubt as to her line of business, she informed us that “I’ve been spatchcocked , trussed up, boned and basted more times that he’s had hot caudle”. The playful inclusion of “caudle” at the end of that line, invited us to guess that it meant something similar to “dinners”. This was another good example of how the edit both assisted the audience while simultaneously stretching the limits of their understanding.

Her mother gave her advice on how to play the market and maximise her earnings. She described the tactics not as the “politic conveyance” of the original, but as a “cunning stunt”.

Truly made a quick exit as her suitors Masters Whopping-Prospect (Ciarán Owens) and Muchly-Minted (Nicholas Prasad) came a-calling. Her mother modified her common voice and insisted in refined tones that her daughter was busy reading her bible.

Muchly-Minted was keen to know about Truly’s inheritance, asking “She is heir, is she not, to some nineteen mountains?” The seemingly curious remark was in fact a borrowing from A Chaste Maid In Cheapside.

The set changed to show the interior of the Littledick residence where Mr Littledick (Steffan Rhodri) employed a seedy private detective (David Rubin) to keep a watch out for Penitent Brothel, whom he suspected of trying to sleep with his wife (1.2).

During this conversation we could see Mrs Littledick (Ellie Beaven) listening at an invisible wall in what we understood to be the adjoining room.

Truly Kidman arrived disguised as an Irish nun for her regular sessions with Mrs Littledick, which Mr Littledick wrongly assumed to be moral instruction.

Mr Littledick explained that his wife was “stroking at her lute” and that he had deprived her of “wanton pamphlets, ‘Venus and Adonis’, her Health and Efficiency magazine”, the latter substituting for Hero and Leander.

Saying that she would read to her from Revelations (not Resolution), Kidman had Mrs Littledick brought to her. Mr Littledick went to listen in from the neighbouring room as we had seen his wife do earlier.

Truly instructed her to keep up the appearance of a loyal wife, even to the point of excess, raising her voice so that Mr Littledick could only hear her seemingly virtuous utterances and disguising the subterfuge in a quieter voice.

Mr Littledick burst in on them to congratulate Truly on her work, offering her money to slip “quietly into your offering box”, which Truly gratefully received: “You virtually make me moist”.

Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford) was beating a scantily-clad young lady on the bottom with his riding crop (2.1). He compounded his rakish image by stopping to admire one of the women on the front row (“what a cracker”), offering her his card and a rendez-vous in the bar after the show.

Oboe, disguised in an ill-fitting chauffeur’s uniform, announced that Lord Owemuch had come to call. Spunky the butler (Richard Durden) was elderly and slow, with a hearing aid that whined. He got a laugh simply by hobbling in and out of the room.

Follywit appeared in a false moustache and smart Italian suit, spontaneously renaming Sponger as his footman Ballbag. Comically pretending to be Sir Bounteous’ social superior, Follywit broke out of his cool persona when his uncle mentioned his valuables, slowing his confident delivery to ask comically “Oh… where do you keep them?”

Sir Bounteous went over to a statue of David and tweaking its penis upwards, triggered the upward slide of a book shelf on the other side of the room, revealing a safe built into the wall.

The scene ended with the band playing Let The Good Times Roll and dancing as Follywit realised the ease with which he could rob his uncle of his wealth.

Towels

Both Follywit and Sir Bounteous changed on stage behind towels into their pyjamas so that the next scene with them preparing for bed followed on continuously (2.2). When they were left alone, the interlopers looked in their large trunk for their disguises.

The part of the set representing the house interior went dark, while further upstage we saw Truly Kidman giving a handjob to the detective, asking him to inform Penitent Brothel that she had hit upon a plan to bring him to Mrs Littledick (2.3). The session ended with ejaculate appearing to fly up into the air from the detective (who was facing upstage).

Follywit and his men put on stocking masks. One of them got the end of his stocking trapped in the trunk when it closed, leaving him stood bent backwards fighting against the taught material (2.4).

Spunky discovered them stealing the silver and calmly enquired “Thieves?” before confirming the answer for himself. He was knocked out, leaving the men to attempt to open the safe. They tried to operate the penis switch but it would not work. In frustration the switch was repeatedly tweaked, faster and faster without result, creating an obscene visual joke.

Discovered by Sir Bounteous, they introduced themselves as Geordies. Sir B operated the switch enabling them to continue to fill the trunk. They took cash from the safe, as well as a set of golf clubs and a long ladder which was used to remove a painting from high up on the wall.

They were left with the problem of how to appear victims of the robbery the next morning. Hitting Oboe was a good start. Ropes were required to tie them up. The thick piping was torn from a seat, but although just two ropes were thus ripped off, three sound effects overlay the action. This prompted a comic double-take from one of the gang.

Penitent Brothel arrived outside Truly Kidman’s house located at 69 Swallow Street (2.5). Punters called at other adjacent doors and were shown in by their prostitutes, while Truly Kidman spoke to Penitent Brothel in the street and told him her plan.

Firstly, she would feign sickness, something she could do as convincingly as the other pretences she had previously employed, a point she underlined by slipping into her Irish accent.

The other part of the plan involved Penitent Brothel visiting in disguise as a physician.

Back at Sir Bounteous’ house, Follywit practised his pretence at being bound, trying out various positions including crouching bent forward on the bed with his hands behind his back (2.6). Bounteous Peersucker hopped into the room with his feet and arms still tied not realising that Follywit and his men were responsible for the robbery.

As Follywit faked outrage at his host’s lack of security, both he and his associate Sponger repeatedly moved their supposedly bound wrists apart, forgetting the pretence they were supposed to be maintaining, until suddenly realising their error, snapping their wrists together and grinning in embarrassment. Sir Bounteous did not notice.

On a textual note, Sir Bounteous’ exclamation “I’m a Saracen” was updated to “I’m a Muslim” though this verged on the distasteful.

The text was updated so that Follywit explained how the villains had bound him because they did not trust his promises on the grounds that he was an Old Etonian.

Sponger initially said that Follywit aka Lord Owemuch had not lost anything in the robbery, but later lied to Sir Bounteous itemising a list of valuables and one hundred pounds in cash, which Sir Bounteous promised to make good.

Mr Littledick called his wife down from her room to meet with Masters Whopping-Prospect and Muchly-Minted so that he could observe her comportment and test her virtue (3.1).

The Detective sent to fetch her reported that she was ill, prompting the young men to leave, but told Mr Littledick that her ‘real’ reason was that she did not want to endure the company of men. This was exactly what Truly Kidman had advised her to do and Mr Littledick fell for it, taking this to be more conclusive proof of her innate modesty.

Mrs Littledick intended to visit the allegedly sick Truly Kidman and wanted her husband to accompany her, if only to the door. He agreed, saying he would “not penetrate within”.

The interior of Truly Kidman’s boudoir was dominated by a pink four poster bed (3.2). She lay in it pretending to be sick, ministered to by Penitent Brothel who was dressed as a doctor and kitted out with a black bag, white coat and head mirror.

The arrival of Sir Bounteous encouraged Truly to attempt further extortion. She said it would be easy to get him to pay for expensive bogus treatments because “many’s the time he’s blown his wad on me”.

Penitent Brothel introduced himself as a physician and immediately offered Sir Bounteous a cigarette: a neat joke on the state of 1950s medical knowledge.

Sir Bounteous became discouraged by the sight of his mistress ill, which was enough “to make an old man shrink”. The doctor recommended an increasingly bizarre set of remedies, taking strange objects out of his bag to demonstrate them and, desperate to invent names for them, resorted to Italian foods such as “Osso bucco, tortellini, mellenzane parmigiane…”

Sir Bounteous said they would have to be patient, to which Penitent countered “I cannot be patient and physician too”. Some in the audience groaned at this terrible joke, at which point John Hopkins glanced at them and said “Thomas Middleton, 1605” as if to point out that this was part of the original text and not a poor quality editorial addition. This looked like a spontaneous adlib, but on further investigation was found to be an integral part of the performance, presumably provoking similar reactions at most performances.

Another of the suggested remedies was “half a pint of Guinness”, which referenced the fact that this brand of stout was once prescribed by doctors.

Sir Bounteous handed over money to pay for all these ridiculous cures and left.

The two suitors Whopping-Prospect and Muchly-Minted were also concerned. Both of them offered money, which Muchly-Minted described as “the fruit of my bulging pockets”. One of them had brought a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray as a gift, although this was never actually handed over, serving as an element of period detail.

Penitent Brothel needed these two out of the way. Telling them that Truly required an hour’s sleep merely made them wish to stay and watch, so a bed pan was brought over which Truly began to squat, sending the suitors to the door.

Mrs Littledick arrived and Penitent appeared semi-undressed from behind the bed sporting a visible erection as he greeted “the fullness of my wish”.

Mr Littledick appeared on a long promontory high above the bed representing the floor above through which he would listen to goings-on in the room below.

Truly’s task was to talk loudly and provide context for the lovers’ cries to prevent Mr Littldick from becoming suspicious. This she did brilliantly, readopting the accent of her Irish nun character.

Mrs Littledick’s repeated exultant cries of “Yes” became her agreement with the nun’s homilies on chastity. Her moans of pleasure were interpreted as crying at Kidman’s sickly condition.

The uproarious comedy of this sequence reached a climax when Mr Littledick thought that his wife was about to leave. He exclaimed “She’s coming”, at which point both Penitent and Mrs Littledick came at once, which prompted her husband to announce cheerily “Good. She’ll feel better for that”.

He descended while Truly Kidman reeled off a list of her relations she wished that Mrs Littledick would greet, including “Great Aunty Rugmunch”.

The curtain was drawn from the bed to reveal the lovers smoking post-coital cigarettes, Penitent’s tie knotted round his forehead. The arrival of Mr Littledick forced Penitent to dive under the covers to conceal himself, with his arms sticking out beside Mrs Littledick’s head and being mistaken for hers. After this hilarious sequence the interval came.

Interval

The second half began outside the Moka Bar as Follywit and his companions relished their victory over Sir Bounteous (3.3).

But the young man suddenly remembered that his uncle kept a mistress who might inherit a third of his estate. He hit on a plan to further enrich himself and discredit the unnamed woman. He disappeared inside the coffee bar and emerged having swapped his clothes with those of the waitress, taking some iced buns and shoving down his top to fill out his bosom. This requirement for considerably bigger buns might have been a Calendar Girls reference.

Follywit commented on it being “… an Amazonian time. You shall shortly have women tread their husbands” to which the Waitress (Badria Timimi) responded with a laconic “Yeah”. Follywit obviously considered himself irresistible as he was sure all men would want to “circumnavigate my globes”.

Penitent Brothel was discovered frying a chipolata on a hot plate tormenting himself as he read in a book about the evils of adultery. His self-flagellation involved whipping himself with a tea towel and on one occasion pressing his hand into the hot pan.

Eventually the pan caught fire and he held out a large tea towel to cover it. After he whisked the towel over the pan, the Succubus (Ellie Beaven again) appeared as if by magic in his bedsit armchair. She was a vision of erotic delight in her black basque and suspendered tights topped by a red chiffon negligee.

She began to seduce him, inviting Penitent to “twine me” and finishing on an incomplete rhyme:

Where’s thy lip, thy clip, thy pluck?
Let us strip, unzip and ….

She gyrated in front of him, repeating “Fa le la, le la” as she teased him with her erotic allure. He commanded her to leave and this time she complied as Penitent threatened her with the fire extinguisher. Once she had gone, he let the extinguisher off and showered it around as if orgasming. The passing caretaker (Gwilym Lloyd) had not noticed anyone leaving the bedsit.

A brief scene saw Spunky inform Sir Bounteous that Truly Kidman had arrived to see him (4.2).

Spunky showed Follywit, disguised as Truly Kidman, into the room (4.3). He just happened to point out the casket where he kept his savings and the key on the chain round his neck that unlocked it.

Spunky tried it on with the disguised Follywit, taking him for Truly, and he agreed to a later assignation at The Suck And Swallow pub in return for the chain round his neck. He then used it to steal from the casket.

Sir Bounteous entered prepared for his session with Truly, stripped to his underpants and vest, and with a dog leash round his neck. He noticed that Truly’s breath smelt of “wine, beer and tobacco” but that did not prevent him chasing her around the room, with his hand coming dangerously close to discovering that the object of his lust was not a woman.

Sir Bounteous became discouraged and called to Spunky to bring him his “tincture” as “the bald-headed hermit is returning to his cave”. In his absence, Follywit stole some more loot from the room and scarpered. On his return with Spunky, Sir Bounteous took note of the various thefts and changed his mind about Truly Kidman. He decided to cheer himself up by throwing a fancy dress ball.

Penitent Brothel confronted Mrs Littledick, thinking her the Succubus that had visited him and told her about the guilt he felt (4.4). She leant forwards resting her elbows on the desk as he stood behind her, so that when Mr Littledick appeared, they appeared to be in a compromising situation.

However, at that precise point Penitent Brothel was telling her to keep her vows and to be loyal to her husband, a sentiment with which she wholeheartedly agreed. This again gladdened Mr Littledick.

Spunky appeared up in the gallery and telephoned Mr Littledick, inviting him to the fancy dress ball, which would require wearing “Jacobean garb”. This was a nice nod to the original play.

Back at the Moka Bar, Follywit was coming on to Truly Kidman who eventually departed having made plain that she was not interested in him (4.5).

He met her mother Mrs Kidman, who informed him, in her fake posh voice, that Truly was very bashful. She left briefly to fetch her daughter back upon which Follywit made Truly an offer of marriage and mentioned in passing his rich uncle Sir Bounteous.

Mrs Kidman remarked “I know your uncle well; she knows him better” in a joking reference to Truly being his mistress.

The marriage was quickly agreed on and Follywit proposed that they all attend the fancy dress ball, treat it as a free wedding dinner and also surprise Sir Bounteous with the news.

Follywit left the Kidmans who dropped their posh act to wonder how Sir Bounteous would react to the nuptial.

Guests arrived at Sir Bounteous’ house for the Jacobean-themed fancy dress ball (5.1). Spunky announced the arrival of “certain actor-types” who presented themselves with a fanfare as the servants of Lord Owemuch, thus gaining them instant credibility.

A rather tasteless joke was made about the “boys who plays girls” who were said to be “bringing up the rear”.

On the subject of the performance, Follywit announced that “We’ll be giving you The Slip”. Sir Bounteous was sarcastic to Truly Kidman when she arrived, as he now considered her to be a thief.

Mrs Kidman told him that her daughter was now married. Sir Bounteous was convinced that her husband “cannot be but a rascal” and concluded with a Latin saying “Ferter ut opibus abundad maximis” that Mrs Kidman thought meant he was calling her “an old fart”.

This phrase appears to be a modified borrowing from A Chaste Maid In Cheapside, where Tim says “Ferter me hercule tu virgo, Wallia ut opibus abundis maximis”: in English “”It is said, by Hercules, that Wales abounds with great wealth.” The sentence here seems ungrammatical.

Truly denied the theft despite wearing one of the stolen jewels on her finger.

Follywit and his companions appeared with a lot of stolen booty, which they hastily excused as borrowed properties for the performance. Increasingly audacious, he said that they also needed to borrow a chain, a ring and a watch. Sir Bounteous willingly provided them, specifying that the watch was Swiss and chimed upon the hour.

His assistants scarpered with the loot, leaving Follywit to improvise a prologue for the play to present to the attentive audience, now all gathered in a line facing downstage. At the end Truly Kidman said she had fallen for the actor.

There followed an incredibly long pause, punctuated by mild fidgeting by the onstage audience until Follywit dashed back muttering about how their plot had been thwarted.

Mr Littledick noted how sullen Follywit appeared and said that he looked like an angry young man “I ha’ seen such a man at the Royal Court” introducing a neat 1950s theatre in-joke.

Follywit realised that police would soon be arriving and so spoke as if the Constable were part of the play. The Constable had Oboe and Sponger under arrest and Follywit overacted trying to include him in the onstage action. Trying to pursue his enquiries, the Constable spoke to Sir Bounteous, who assumed that this was in the experimental nature of the play. He rebuffed the Constable’s questions, instructing him to talk to his fellow players.

After trying to insinuate that the ‘character’ was drunk, Follywit hit on the idea of tying the Constable to the chair as part of the play. Truly suggested using garters, and got the women to throw theirs on to the performance area.

The Constable was bound and gagged and left struggling as Follywit and his accomplices made a quick exit. The onstage audience guffawed at the funniest play they had ever seen.

But after a while they noticed that nothing else had happened and a servant was dispatched to investigate. He returned shortly afterwards to report that the ‘actors’ had completely disappeared. Sir Bounteous realised that he had been cheated. Once freed, the Constable was furious, but in a comically contained way.

Follywit and friends entered dressed in Jacobean fancy dress and acting like mere latecomers to the party. As Sir Bounteous explained that he had just been robbed by a troupe of actors, the chime of his stolen watch began to sound and was soon discovered to be in Follywit’s pocket along with the chain and jewel that had been similarly stolen.

Ever quick-witted, Follywit assured his uncle that this entire sequence of events was just his joke and that he had amended his life for the better by marrying.

But when he pointed out Truly Kidman as his wife, Sir Bounteous began to laugh; the two suitors cried “Dash it!” The box of Milk Tray was discarded, while Sponger questioned whether Follywit was serious.

Sir Bounteous was ecstatic that Follywit had fooled him only to be fooled in turn to a much greater extent by “a fly-girl, a pole-climber, a fuckstress” whom he gleefully announced was in fact his mistress.

Truly admitted to this but vowed to live better in future.

Follywit sheepishly admitted that he had been bested, using a line borrowed from 3.3 to say that “craft recoils like an over-charged musket and maims the very hand that puts fire to it”. But he proposed a toast anyway, generating a jolly atmosphere for the final moments of the play in which Sir Bounteous, living up to his name, gave Follywit “a thousand mark”.

Follywit spoke to Truly using a line borrowed from Michaelmas Term: “What base birth does not raiment make glorious?” to which she replied “And this raiment, when removed, will give you glory, husband.” At this point came the inevitable romantic kiss between the happy couple.

The performance ended as the cast collapsed in a heap facing the audience to sing Who Will The Next Fool Be? as balloons fell from the ceiling which were thrown out into the audience.

Conclusions

The production was a riotous triumph whose energy was partly the cathartic release of tension for many of the cast who were alternating between this play and the much darker and violent Titus Andronicus.

The approach to the text, neither fully modern, nor wholly archaic, was highly intelligent and satisfying. If this mixture of original and modern can work for Middleton, then the question arises as to whether it could work for Shakespeare too. Or will the RSC continue to consider Shakespeare texts sacrosanct?

This outstanding production has set a strong precedent for future productions of this type, whose repercussions might yet be felt beyond Stratford.

The precise treatment of Jacobean comedies is a question of immediate interest to directors considering working at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre.

Titus’s antic disposition

Titus Andronicus, Swan Stratford, 28 June 2013

The RSC was keen to point out that this production was gruesome and blood-stained. So it was slightly underwhelming to enter the Swan and be greeted by the sight of three apparently intact, clean bodies, their faces peeking out from blankets as they lay on hospital trolleys in a dingy hospital. The Roman insignia on the wall clashed anachronistically with the large radio from which a voice burbled indistinctly. Nurses attended to the sick, mopping brows in an atmosphere of serene calm.

Titus (Stephen Boxer) and his son came to visit, the father tenderly examining his other children, kissing their brows before closing their eyes and covering their faces. He stood stiffly by them and gave a clenched fist salute. But despite this martial gesture it was clear that Titus was war-weary. Our first glimpse of Titus showed him as compassionate and tender.

Saturninus (John Hopkins) and Bassianus (Richard Goulding) appeared on the upper gallery overlooking the stage and pitched their claims for the position of emperor. Titus leaned into the radio to listen as if hearing their words as a broadcast.

Saturninus cast a scathing glance at his rival as he spoke of “this indignity” while Bassianus in turn gave a withering look at Saturninus as he said that “dishonour” should not approach the throne.

Marcus Andronicus (Richard Durden) entered on the stage level announcing that the Roman people had chosen Titus, who had been called back to Rome.

There was an air of weakness to Saturninus that would later explain his willingness to be led by Tamora.

Titus pointed at the radio to draw attention to Bassianus’s reference to “gracious Lavinia” to whom “my thoughts are humbled all”.

The two rivals dismissed their followers and cleared the balcony.

The Captain’s role in announcing Titus’s arrival was cut as he was already present. But the focus on Titus as the centre of attention was heralded by major changes to the stage.

The bodies were taken from the trolleys and laid in white shrouds downstage, while the back wall of the hospital opened out to reveal Titus’s captives: Tamora (Katy Stephens) and her three sons were in harnesses restrained by ropes, while behind them Aaron (Kevin Harvey) stood with his tethered arms outstretched, this greater restraint signalling his greater potential threat.

As Titus spoke of the “precious lading” with which he had returned to Rome, he paused, choked with emotion before describing the family tomb as their “latest home”.

Lucius (Matthew Needham) appealed to have one of the Goths killed in retribution and Titus brusquely agreed.

As Alarbus (Nicholas Prasad) was taken, Tamora became wide-eyed with grief and shrieked in impotent terror. She pleaded with Titus to spare Alarbus, but they met kneeling over Titus dead son so that his motive for revenge was immediately before him.

Lucius and the other sons stood with Alarbus on the centre stage lift and descended below the stage, returning moments later with nothing more than a bowl filled with bloody remains into which he dipped his fingers and smeared Alarbus’s blood onto his brothers’ foreheads.

The use of the lift and the military precision of the operation were faintly reminiscent of operations on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

This pitiless slaughter showed that however mournful and compassionate Titus could be, he was still capable of savage retribution.

The shrouded bodies of his dead sons were buried in the family tomb by being hoisted by ropes up into the air.

Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) appeared on the stage right walkway and greeted her father centre stage where they embraced. She was dressed in white, which matched her long blond plaits.

With ceremony complete, Marcus offered Titus a white robe, bidding him to be a candidate for the emperorship.

Titus turned down the offer, his thoughts once again still on his soldiership and his dead sons as he paused before enumerating the “one and twenty” he had buried.

Saturninus entered and knelt along with Bassianus to Titus whom they both expected to become emperor. But Titus gave his support to Saturninus who threw aside his white candidatus robe before he stood to be acclaimed ruler.

The new emperor had difficulty adjusting to his position, faltering before adopting the imperial plural: he paused “the favours done to… us” and the text was changed so that he could also pause before saying “… we give thee thanks”. His uncertainty at this point combined with earlier indications of his weakness to suggest subtly his lack of preparedness and unsuitability to rule.

He chose Lavinia as his wife and immediately seized on her, took her aside and pulled the shoulder of her dress down to perve over her body. Titus put his sword at Saturninus’s feet and handed over the prisoners to him. Saturninus freed Tamora assuring her “princely shall be thy usage”.

As Saturninus made to leave with Lavinia, she shot pleading glances at her fiancé Bassianus, who picked up on her cue and laid claim to her. He was backed up by Lucius, but opposed vehemently by the loyal Titus. Saturninus watched passively and stamped his foot petulantly like a child.

As Lavinia was snatched away, Mutius (Harry McEntire) drew his sword and blocked Titus from pursuing. Enraged at this mutiny, Titus grabbed his son by the head and snapped his neck, his limp body falling to the ground at his feet.

Tamora once again looked on appalled at this Roman barbarity.

Saturninus returned supported by Roman troops and denouncing the treachery of Titus’s family. He sounded as if he was trying to forget the insult just offered to him and his choice of Tamora as replacement bride was almost an impulsive whim, “this my sudden choice”, which he announced in a cautiously defensive manner.

He plucked Tamora from upstage where she was crouching and held her hand aloft like the victor of a fight. She looked shabby and scared, the whole hasty match looking like the pathetic second-best option of the insecure Saturninus. The pair departed together.

After his brother and son had pleaded for Mutius to be buried with the rest of the family, Titus relented and his body was hoisted up to join the others.

Saturninus appeared on the balcony along with Tamora who had been cleaned up and now wore an elegant gown. He denounced Bassianus and his family as traitorous and seemed intent on revenge until Tamora advised him as a new appointee not to act against Titus in case the Romans should turn against him.

Saturninus agreed and everyone cheerily greeted the new peace as Tamora proclaimed that “This day all quarrels die”. There was still a hint of hurt in Saturninus’s voice when he accused Lavinia of leaving him “like a churl”, but all was resolved. Titus even threw his fur stole up to Tamora as a gift, signifying his approval of her position.

But right at the end of the festival of reconciliation, Tamora was held in spotlight to deliver key lines, usually an aside, held over from her previous speech. She glared out at the audience and announced with a demonic evil flourish “I’ll find a day to massacre them all…”

You can take the girl out of Goth-land, but you cannot take Goth-land out of the girl.

Pendant

Tamora threw a heart-shaped pendant down to Aaron who caught it and put it around his neck as he came forward and stood on the centre platform (2.1).

The platform raised him slightly as attendants held up a fine cloak into which he slipped his arms “Away with slavish weeds”. Kevin Harvey managed to convey the roughness of the Moor but also the fine eloquence of his language. He wore Tamora’s heart-shaped pendant that reminded us that although married to the emperor, she was still his “imperial mistress”.

Demetrius (Perry Millward) and Chiron (Jonny Weldon) were two aggressive lads threatening each other with knives in their dispute over who had most right to court Lavinia. Aaron separated them as they almost came to blows and acted like their wise counsellor.

The boys continued to taunt each other with Chiron holding his dagger limply in front of his crotch taunting Demetrius by saying “And with thy weapon nothing dar’st perform”.

Aaron suggested that they snare Lavinia during the hunt arranged for the next day, preferring that they commit a great outrage in secret rather than a social faux pas in public. Aaron gestured as if riding Lavinia, telling the “brave boys” to “take your turns”. Aaron gave Chiron his scimitar, possibly in the hope he would take after him.

Soldiers rushed down the stage, scattering it with black ash to set the scene in the forest for the hunt (2.2). As the ladies and gentlemen prepared for the day’s sport, Demetrius and Chiron ambled through on their BMX bikes looking like potential troublemaking interlopers.

Aaron continued to charm us with his explanation of his “very excellent piece of villainy” as he stashed a bag of gold at the side of the stage, notionally under a tree (2.3). Tamora, now wearing a split leg skirt so that her thigh tattoos were visible in addition to those on her arms, met with him. She had love on her mind, but Aaron fought to resist the temptation she offered. His face showed the strain of the effort that this self-control demanded. But he managed to keep his mind on the business in hand and gave her a letter to look over.

He made a quick exit as Bassianus and Lavinia approached. The couple were haughtily unpleasant to Tamora, accusing her of an unseemly assignation with the “barbarous Moor”.

Chiron and Demetrius appeared downstage to stand behind Tamora as she accused her tormentors of luring her to this spot in order to slander and then murder her. She spoke these lies with self-assured confidence as her sons flew to revenge these injuries by stabbing Bassianus.

Lavinia spat further insults at Tamora, who wanted a knife to kill her too. But her lascivious sons wanted to take her away to deprive her of her chastity as a fitting punishment, “thrash the corn, then after burn the straw”.

As the boys tried to carry her off to enjoy her “nice-preserved honesty”, Lavinia begged Tamora to be killed straight away. When she refused, Lavinia still showed she had some fight in her by butting her forehead against Tamora’s as she denounced her as a “beastly creature”.

As Lavinia was taken away, Tamora stood over Bassianus and the stage went dark. The lights went up again on Martius (Ciarán Owens) in the pit next to Bassianus, who had remained on stage, but the staging now indicated that he was in the pit.

Aaron in one section of the upper gallery said he would “fetch the king to find them here” while Quintus (Joe Bannister) in a neighbouring section of the same gallery called down to Martius, who explained that he had found Bassianus there. Quintus reached forward and the lights went down once more to suggest his fall into the pit.

The stage was cleared and the trap was opened as Saturninus and followers arrived to look down into the pit, now seen from the top.

Tamora expertly pretended not to know who was dead at the bottom of the bit and produced the forged letter given to her by Aaron to prove the guilt of Titus’s two sons. Saturninus ordered a search for the moneybag as further confirmation, which Aaron was happy to provide by retrieving the bag from the spot where he had previously placed it, with as much fake outrage and sincerity as Tamora.

Titus vowed that the emperor would have justice for the murder of his brother, displaying the same disinterested loyalty that had provoked his killing of Mutius.

The next scene began with another chilling use of the stage lift (2.4). Demetrius and Chiron, their clothes, hands and faces dripping with blood, the instruments of their butchery still in their hands, rose out of the stage with Lavinia curled at their feet.

The horror of their brutality was made the worse for their callous references to their actions and their taunting of the helpless Lavinia.

They left her to “her silent walks”. Lavinia lay motionless and alone for what seemed like an age before struggling to raise herself. Her long hair had been cut raggedly short, with the tresses used as bandages to dress the stumps of her wrists. Strands of hair still hung from the ends like tassels. Her clothes were naturally in tatters.

Marcus came across this pitiful sight and the horror was further enhanced as blood flowed from Lavinia’s mouth as she tried to speak, which Marcus reminded us was the result of her tongue being cut out.

A crowd of hooded tribunes crossed over the stage and ignored Titus’s pleas for clemency for his sons (3.1). The condemned sons were dragged up the stage on rough sackcloth and Titus concluded he would be better off talking to the stones, which he knelt to caress.

This conversation with the floor was the first indication of Titus distracted state of mind. But there was a certain method to his madness: the fact that he could be taken for insane yet still be fully lucid, prepared us for his subsequent deception of Tamora, which was achieved using precisely this confusion.

Marcus told his father that he had been banished for trying to rescue his brothers. Titus’s remark that Rome was “but a wilderness of tigers” was soon proved right as Marcus brought in the pitiful Lavinia.

The poetry of Titus’s reaction enhanced the great dignity of his sentiments. Lavinia fainted to the ground when Titus mentioned her condemned brothers. Picking up on this sign, he tried to comfort her, saying that if her brothers were responsible then justice would be done as they were condemned to die anyway. But he soon realised, as Marcus had suggested, that she knew they were innocent.

Aaron appeared downstage carrying a large bucket of hot pitch and told the Andronicus family that the emperor would spare the sons if any them chopped off their hand and sent it back.

Titus immediately and hurriedly offered his hand, approaching Aaron and asking him to help. There was in this request a hint of irony at the ridiculousness of the situation, which reflected the pointless horror of it all.

With Lucius and Marcus also offering, Titus agreed to spare his hand, which prompted the other two to go fetch an axe. He took advantage of their absence to call on Aaron, who took his hacksaw, grabbed Titus’s arm and sawed off the hand centre stage as Titus shrieked. He plunged Titus’s stump into the pitch, allowing the actor’s real hand to be concealed beneath a cover.

Marcus and Lucius returned to be confronted with Titus’s fait accompli. Aaron promised to return his sons, and his devilish aside “Their heads I mean” verged into the comic as the full extent of his villainy was exposed.

Titus kneeled and Lavinia kneeled next to him as both were united in sorrow and mutual pity.

Marcus challenged him over his excessive reaction, but Titus pointed at Lavinia as he spoke of the winds raging and at himself when referring to the sea being wild, expressing how natural it was for disturbance in one to provoke motion in the other, before making the comparison explicit “I am the sea… She is the weeping welkin”.

A strange-looking man (Ben Deery) pushed in a pram laden with what looked like meat in plastic bags. He dumped the two sons’ heads and Titus’s hand on the ground and departed.

Titus laughed at the absurdity of it all, at one point playing with his own severed hand. He lifted each up in turn, saying that “these two heads do seem to speak to me”, and acted as if listening to them, nodding in agreement. He then continued “and threat me I shall never come to bliss till all these mischiefs be returned again even in their throats that have committed them”, as if prompted by the heads’ suggestions.

This was another instance of apparently mad behaviour with a completely lucid purpose that was simply a coping mechanism devised by someone under extreme stress.

He did not go into specifics, but told Lucius to go to the Goths and raise an army. The others left, with Marcus and Titus carrying a head each and Lavinia carrying Titus’s hand in her mouth.

Lucius said he would go to the Goths to raise an army “to be revenged on Rome and Saturnine” and as he spoke the Goths loomed out of the darkness upstage, led by their new queen (Sarah Ridgeway). They hailed Lucius, who stripped off his shirt and braced himself as the Goth queen took a hot iron and branded him with the mark of the Goths, welcoming him into their ranks.

On that searing image the interval came.

Interval

A big square table was set out for the second half (3.2). Lavinia lurked under the table before emerging to sit at breakfast. She had now been cleaned up: her hair had grown back, albeit shorter than before, and her stumps were now bound in leather. She tried clumsily to grasp a spoon to open her boiled egg but failed, eventually smashing the egg and gulping down the contents like an animal.

The rest of the family came in for breakfast, including Young Lucius (George David) who was carrying some books tied up with string. Titus’s hand stump was also encased in brown leather.

The general air of despondency at their losses found expression when Lavinia brushed away her plate scattering its contents, a gesture picked up on by Titus as he said “Thou map of woe, that thus dost talk in signs”.

In a change to the text it was Young Lucius who stabbed at a fly with his knife, claiming that he mistook it for Aaron the Moor. Titus’s slightly sarcastic responses, typified by “How if that fly had a father and mother?”, worked perfectly in this context as warm-hearted admonitions to a child.

Titus took the knife and repeated the assault on the dead insect, yet again playing along and appearing to be soft-headed, while in fact perfectly compos mentis. With hindsight, the transfer of Marcus’s fly tormenting to Young Lucius and Titus’s playful response could be seen as a more effective preparation for the tricking of Tamora than the text’s version.

The action carried on continuously into 4.1. Instead of Lavinia running after Young Lucius in another location, she simply spied the parcel of books and cast them from the table to the ground before pawing at one of them with her stumps. The scene therefore began with Marcus and Titus puzzling over her motives.

She raised her arms in the air one after the other and then pointed out the story of Philomel, from which Titus interpreted that she had been raped by two men. Titus implored her to name her attackers. Marcus dragged Lavinia onto the table top and, grasping a salt shaker between his forearms, demonstrated how to spell out names. Lavinia took the shaker and spelt out Chiron and Demetrius.

With vengeance in the air, Titus placed a saucepan on Young Lucius’s head like a helmet, inviting him to be fitted out in “mine armoury” and told him that he would take a message to Tamora’s sons.

In the scene interval, Tamora appeared on the upper gallery great with child, holding onto the balustrade to steady herself as she walked, overseen by a nurse.

Shadowy figures that had represented the tribunes moved the dining table aside to reveal a bed rising out of the trap on which Demetrius and Chiron cavorted with two girls (Ellie Beaven and Sarah Ridgeway) (4.2). Young Lucius ignored their taunts to present them with a bundle of knives in a cloth holder. The boldness of the boy’s acidic asides to the audience, indicating that Tamora’s sons had been rumbled, was gratifyingly comical.

But while the young men were dimly grateful for the gift, it took Aaron to work out that the message that accompanied it indicated that Titus knew they were the perpetrators.

The Nurse (Badria Timimi) brought in Tamora’s newborn baby. When she asked the lads “did you see Aaron the Moor”, he introduced himself, deliberately playing up the comedy in his “Well, more or less…”

The Nurse’s horror at the mixed-race child, to which she ascribed increasingly lurid terms such as “loathsome as a toad”, culminated in her telling Aaron that Tamora wanted him to kill it.

Aaron switched from resolute defence of the child and by extension his own colour “Zounds, ye whore, is black so base a hue?” to cooing baby language “Sweet blowze, you are a beauteous blossom, sure.” These brief two lines raised Aaron way beyond the standard Machiavel from which his character derived.

Chiron and Demetrius, on the other hand, were incensed. But Aaron once again managed to be sympathetic by getting the better of them using comedy. The sons complained that he had “undone our mother”. His riposte, “Villain, I have done your mother” managed to be an insult to them and an appealing comic interlude for the audience.

Aaron cradled the baby close to him with one hand, while fending off “white-limed” Chiron and Demetrius with his scimitar in the other, an image that combined tender paternal affection and imminent violence to create great tension.

Even as he reasoned with them, he found time to include the baby in his argument, cooing to the baby as he imagined how it would say “Old lad, I am thine own”.

Aaron managed to convince the boys that their brother was worth saving and sat on the bed, the Nurse next to him, asking her how many people knew that the baby was black. Apart from Tamora, only the Nurse and midwife knew.

Aaron leant in towards the Nurse and began to utter a confidence upon which he stabbed her in the stomach. She cried out in agony and collapsed backwards on to the bed. Aaron looked at her and shook his head disapprovingly. He then corrected her by making what he considered an authentic squealing sound and said “so cries a pig prepared to the spit” as he stabbed her again in the behind. He thus undid all the credit he had built up as a caring father.

Even Chiron and Demetrius were appalled at this, but it was possible to detect a certain professional admiration for Aaron’s thoroughness.

Aaron instructed them to take gold to Muly whose wife had given birth to a white child and to explain how their child would be advanced by being swapped with the empress’s. They looked puzzled at this until Aaron clarified that the swap would enable the emperor to “dandle him for his own” at which point the slow brothers grasped his drift. Taking note of their dimness, he then told them to bring the midwife to him, speaking slowly and deliberately as if they were simpletons.

By now Chiron and Demetrius were convinced that Aaron was acting in their mother’s best interests, but with his parting remark, cooing over the baby that he would bring it up “to be a warrior and command a camp”, he made his self-interest plain.

Titus and family approached from upstage carrying crossbows as they prepared to send messages to the emperor (4.3). Titus laid a large chart (presumably of the mythological world) out on the ground, gesturing at it as he issued crazy instructions to dig “to Pluto’s region” to deliver a petition to him. Marcus and Publius (Ben Deery) commented on his apparent madness.

The crossbowmen were given bolts bearing messages and fired them into the air.

When they had finished a blind man (Dwane Walcott) with a brace of pigeons round his neck, his clothes dirtied with pigeon guano, came into view. It was evident from his comical misunderstanding of questions that he was simple-minded. Nevertheless, Titus used this Clown as a messenger to the emperor, hastily writing his “supplication” on the man’s back before giving it to him, as well as a knife to be wrapped in it.

An ornate bath ascended through the trap and after a brief pause Saturninus bobbed up out of the water, compounding the surprise of the bath’s incongruous appearance (4.4). He was scrubbed by female attendants as Tamora wandered about with a visibly white baby on her shoulder. Saturninus delved down into the water and retrieved a handful of bolts of which he queried “what wrongs are these?”

The comic sight of a man in a bath ascending into view was compounded by the implication that all the arrows shot from the crossbows had somehow landed in his bath.

Tamora assuaged her husband’s fears about Titus “blazoning our injustice everywhere” but congratulated herself in an aside that she had touched him “to the quick”. She put the baby down tenderly as she spoke of Aaron making “all safe, the anchor in the port”, the nautical image conveying the safe-keeping she wished for her own child.

When the Clown was shown in, Saturninus stepped out of the bath as his attendants wrapped a towel around him, so that he could read the letter. But all the poor messenger got for his pains was the emperor’s instant order to that he should be hanged. Saturninus had worked out that this was all Titus’s doing.

Saturninus was scared by the news of Lucius approach with the Goth army. He sat at the foot of the bath and was comforted by Tamora, who encouraged him to take heart. She put her arm round him and her supportive caresses evidenced the emperor’s innate weakness.

She nuzzled his head close to her as she promised to “enchant the old Andronicus”. Saturninus raised his head out of her embrace to object that “But he will not entreat his son for us”, to which Tamora responded by comically thrusting his head back down again to continue assuaging him.

The ridiculousness of the bath scene was enhanced by this farcical moment.

Parley

Tamora took further control as she instructed Emillius (Gwilym Lloyd) to request a parley with Lucius at his father Titus’s house.

The scene ended on a sinister note. Up in the gallery the Clown was placed in a noose and hanged, while Tamora turned to the audience and announced that she would visit Titus and try to get him to separate Lucius from the Goths, cackling evilly about “my devices”.

Lucius and the new Goth queen met and agreed to attack Rome as Aaron and his child were brought to them (5.1). The Goth (Ciarán Owens again) who had taken them prisoner described how he had found Aaron describing out loud the full details of his plot in “a ruinous monastery”, and the uptalk intonation on “monastery” perhaps hinted at the anachronistic and geographically incorrect nature of this Reformation reference.

Lucius ordered both to be hanged, the baby first so that Aaron could see it suffer. Aaron tried threats, but soon realised that offering useful intelligence in exchange for the child’s life would be a better ploy.

Aaron admitted to fathering the child with Tamora and revealed Chiron and Demetrius as the ravagers of Lucius’s sister Lavinia. The audacity of admitting his involvement in this crime and that he had framed Lucius’s brothers for the murder of Bassianus, made the sequence very edgy as there was always the possibility of Lucius becoming enraged and taking retribution.

Describing how he had laughed after tricking Titus into cutting off his hand, could only be described as a high-risk strategy. But it paid off as Lucius implied that hanging was too good for him.

Emillius brought Tamora’s message inviting Lucius to a parley at Titus’s house, which he accepted.

Titus appeared on the upper gallery, representing the interior of his house, and sat at a table writing (5.2). Tamora (aka Revenge) and her sons entered on the stage below, wearing wolf pelts draped over their shoulders, their heads shrouded under fanged wolf upper jaws.

They gestured as if throwing stones at Titus’s window and succeeded in attracting his attention. In a nice touch, papers blew from the writing table as Titus mimed opening his window, enacting his fear that they merely practised “a trick to make me ope the door, that so my sad decrees may fly away”.

Tamora tried to lure Titus down, and stood under the window looking back at her sons. She ignored his recognition of her and she continued to insist that she was the mythological figure of Revenge. When she drew attention to her “ministers” they circled and made weird noises in an attempt at eeriness.

Titus requested that she prove she were Revenge by killing her assistants, whom he (and subsequently and falteringly she) named as Rape and Murder.

Hearing this, Chiron and Demetrius looked disconsolately at their mother and began to leave, certain that Titus had recognised them. But Tamora gestured to them to stay as Titus finally decided to descend and meet with them.

He brought with him the drawings of the three of them he had been working on upstairs. Chiron and Demetrius asked Titus what he would have them do. He brandished the drawings and ordered them to kill the people that they resembled, i.e. themselves.

Tamora continued to ignore the clear indications that they had been detected and asked Titus to bring his son Lucius to dine at his house. In return she would bring the emperor, his wife and her sons, and all his enemies for him to be revenged upon.

He agreed, but when Tamora and her sons went to leave, Titus insisted that they stay. Having told us that he was perfectly lucid and knew what he was doing, he bid farewell to Revenge, pecking Tamora repeatedly on the cheek, which reinforced her impression that he was insane.

Titus trap closed around Chiron and Demetrius as his kinsmen entered to confront them, the slowness of their pace signalling the ineluctability of the sons’ fate.

Tamora’s sons were seized and torn out of their ridiculous disguises. They were bound, gagged and hoisted up like sides of meat.

The appearance of Lavinia carrying a bowl between her stumps pointed to the gruesome fate awaiting them. Lavinia’s hair was still neat, but she was wearing the tattered dress in which she had been attacked, a reminder of the grounds for Titus’s impending retribution.

Titus reminded them of their crimes as they struggled vainly against their bonds and gags. He asked them “What would you say if I should let you speak?” which triggered furious wriggling and muffled cries.

He explained how they would be turned into pies for their mother. Their throats were cut and the blood drained into the bowl. The religious reference inherent in “Receive the blood” was brought out in that line’s pronouncement.

After Titus had slit the first son’s throat, the second writhed in panic. Titus shook his head as if translating his wish not to be killed and then changed the shaking into a nod, confirming his resolve to go ahead. This he then did, as the last of Tamora’s sons was drained of his blood.

The spectacle of Titus standing next to the slaughtered bodies merged seamlessly into the final scene (5.3). The bodies were hoisted aloft as Titus turned to face the guests arriving for dinner upstage at a table running down the stage. This involved cutting the first 25 lines of the scene showing the impending arrival of Lucius and the Goths.

Marcus arranged a truce centre stage between Saturninus and Lucius, who drank a conciliatory toast and then moved back to the dinner table.

Titus disappeared for a quick change and reappeared dressed as a serving maid and laid out the dishes in camp flourishes before the astonished company. Two pie dishes were placed next to Saturninus and Tamora who sat opposite each other at the head of the table nearest to the audience.

He asked Saturninus whether Virginius had been right to kill his deflowered daughter. On hearing Saturninus agree, Titus took Lavinia downstage, clasped a cloth over her mouth and  suffocated her in full view of everyone. He cried “Die, die Lavinia…” and then paused while she thrashed around during her protracted suffocation, only continuing “… and thy shame with thee…” once she was limp at his feet.

In the light of Titus’s previous actions, this rash murder raised an important question: if Titus had hitherto only feigned madness, was he now at least insane with rage having killed his beloved daughter? Where was the compassionate man shown at the start of the performance?

He alluded to Lavinia’s ravishment, which Saturninus picked up on and Tamora asked why he had killed her. Titus cheerfully and sardonically told Tamora that it was her sons that her killed her.

Saturninus demanded they be brought forth, allowing Titus comically to point at the pie they had been eating and announce “Why, there they are…”

Tamora looked in disgust at the forkful of pie she held near her mouth and, surprisingly, continued its onward motion. She tasted it, thereby confirming what Titus had said.

She cried in horror as her nascent look of revulsion blossomed into absolute disgust.

Bloodbath

The bloodbath began.

Titus thrust a corkscrew into Tamora’s chest. Despite her wound, Tamora still had the strength to lash out. Blood spurted comically from Tamora’s chest as she reeled from the blow. In revenge for this, Saturninus took a carving knife and thrust it into Titus chest, who then slumped down against the edge of the table facing forward to watch the ensuing chaos.

Lucius stood on the table and thrust a blade into Saturninus’s neck, who ended up eviscerated and slumped in his chair.

Eventually the violence died down as people collapsed from their various injuries. Titus, who had leant against the table all this while, now laughed at the carnage. Yet again, this raised the question of his state of mind. While he had merely pretended to be insane, could laughter at this scene be said to be truly well-adjusted?

Marcus recovered and got up from the body pile, promising to “knit again this scattered corn” of the Roman populace “into one mutual sheaf”.

Lucius stood on the dining table to confirm the allegations against Tamora’s sons. The imperial crown was taken from Saturninus, a slight shove sending him comically crashing off his chair, and ended up on Lucius’s head.

Young Lucius entered the bloody scene cradling Tamora’s child as Marcus explained that Aaron was the father and “chief architect and plotter of these woes”.

Aaron was brought in under guard and Lucius, now proclaimed emperor, sentenced him to be buried up to his neck and left to starve. He arranged decent burials for Titus, Lavinia and Saturninus, but looked contemptuously at “that ravenous tiger” Tamora ordering her to be thrown to the animals.

The stage cleared and the table was moved aside to reveal Aaron’s head peering out of the trap. His speech, held over from earlier, now became the play’s ending. He said that he did not repent what he had done. But admitted that he would repent “If one good deed in all my life I did” as he looked up at his baby being held by Young Lucius, whose preservation would surely count as such a good deed.

Young Lucius stood holding the baby and picked up a cake slice with a slight air of menace at which point the lights went out. The implication was that he was following, either by training or by trauma, in the footsteps of his family. In the context of this ending, it was possible to see the fly stabbing sequence being allocated to him as a way of preparing us to see his angelic face contemplate murderous deeds.

Conclusions

The production was gripping and powerfully presented its key moments of violence. But the early focus on Titus’s quiet contemplation of the effects of violence meant that it also brought out the complexity of his character. In particular, questions arose about Titus’s sanity: like Hamlet he affected an “antic disposition” but his actions were ultimately destructive of others and of himself to an extent that put him beyond the bounds of the rational. The overall effect was to show that this early Shakespeare play had all the texture and beauty of his later works.

The chilling reworking of ending intimated at the cyclical nature of violence as Young Lucius took the first steps down the path trod by his older relatives.

Galileo, our contemporary

A Life of Galileo, Swan Theatre Stratford, 16 March 2013

Galileo’s whiteboard, laser pointer and adjustable desk lamp stood before a back wall composed of an oversized sheet of bright blue graph paper. Dot matrix signboards indicated the date and location of scenes. Clerks brandished voice recorders.

Thanks to these visual cues and the infectious enthusiasm with which Galileo (Ian McDiarmid) pursued his seventeenth century battle with authority, the production succeeded in transforming historical events into an incredibly modern-feeling escapade.

At the centre stood the fun-loving scientist whose earthy appetites and effervescent joy in his work made him an appealing figure. A tangible excitement spilled off the stage when he told a companion that he had discovered what constituted the Milky Way, an excitement capable of inspiring the audience to sally forth and find new worlds of their own.

The scene in which the young Cosimo de Medici (Chris Lew Kum Hoi), circling the stage on a spangly kick scooter, was presented with an opportunity to view the stars named in his honour, brought out the comic stupidity of the established academic order.

Asked to view the stars (the moons of Jupiter) through the telescope, the doubters could only dispute whether the alleged objects orbiting Jupiter were really necessary. When urged to use their eyes, the response was that they could use them to read the thoughts of Aristotle, a long-dead Greek whose untested ideas dominated official astronomy.

The flip side to this light-heartedness was the way in which a firm contrast was drawn between Galileo’s trust in the people and their ability to discern right from wrong, and the opposing viewpoint, in which cynicism about ordinary people’s collective intellect became a justification for political conservatism. If people are basically ignorant cattle, then they require herding and paternal government by their betters.

There were two fine and chillingly complementary performances by Martin Turner, first as Galileo’s friend Sagredo, who warned him about the threat of the Inquisition, and then as the Cardinal Inquisitor himself.

But there was always something relentlessly upbeat about Galileo so that his sly appropriation of the Dutch telescope as his own invention was something to smile at rather than a fatal error that would eventually undermine his reputation.

This production added comedy by making the university rector into a woman (Nia Gwynne) with a giddy crush on Galileo when he was popular, but who hid herself behind a clipboard and hurried away from him once he had fallen foul of the authorities.

The Old Cardinal (Patrick Romer) who insisted that the earth he stood on did not move, stamped his feet as he walked, shifting into a distinctive fascistic goose step, while behind him Christopher Clavius (Paul Hamilton) was in the process of verifying the truth of Galileo’s observations.

For some reason the translation prepared by Mark Ravenhill from a literal translation by Deborah Gearing removed perhaps the funniest joke in the play. During the Medici Stars scene, someone remarked that the new telescope allows people to see all the hairs on the great bear, to which lens grinder Federzoni, here a donkey-jacketed working man (Paul Hamilton again), usually quips back “and all sorts of things on the bull!” But this remark was puzzlingly (pizzlingly?) absent.

And this being the RSC, it was difficult not to notice that the text contained an illusion to the world being a stage on which ordinary people were actors, as well as Galileo’s rhetorical statement “That is the question”.

Galileo’s insistence that no one could watch a stone fall to the ground and say it had fallen upwards had its impact greatly increased by having Galileo sat on top of a tall ladder tower, enabling him to drop the stone from a great height onto the ground, rather than letting it fall a few feet from his side, as the moment is often staged.

It was only by the interval when his daughter Virginia (Jodie McNee) interrupted his sun spot experiments wearing her wedding dress to complain that her fiancé, disturbed by Galileo’s continuing defiant enquiries, had left her, that there was a real sense of events taking a turn for the worse. Galileo’s response to the implosion of his daughter’s happiness was a blunt reference back to his ongoing work “I must know the truth”.

The Inquisition took Galileo into its grasp, forcing his recantation of his Copernican theories and confining him to a life of guarded seclusion. Galileo might have acted old and infirm, but the memories of his former activism were too firmly entrenched and too intrinsically appealing for his defeat to seem real.

This meant that the hopeful ending, in which his friend Andrea (Matthew Aubrey) smuggled a copy of his latest work out of the country to spark flames of research elsewhere, felt unnecessary because Galileo had been surrounded all along by the kind of modern technology made possible by his model of science.

His ultimate victory had been hidden in plain sight all along.

Romeo & Juliet reworked

A Tender Thing, Swan Stratford, 6 October 2012

Ben Power’s remarkable production was a reworking of the text of Romeo and Juliet with the central roles reimagined as a middle-aged couple. It utilised ambiguities in the original’s vocabulary and some of its specific references to age.

The Swan stage had bare, light blue boards up to a sandy downstage margin. A screen for projections hung in the arch. A freestanding door, which could be brought forward, and a bed were positioned upstage.

Richard McCabe was a portly, ebullient Romeo while Kathryn Hunter played a lithe, skittish Juliet. Kathryn Hunter’s body looked like a collection of parts reassembled in a new order, coincidentally the same process applied here to the text of the play.

The performance began with Romeo sat in a chair as a projection of the sea washed over him (Prologue). His first words were “Give me the light”, at which point the stage was lit and he moved upstage to where Juliet was lying ill in bed.

He continued to speak of the “detestable maw” and “tomb of death” taken from 5.3 where Romeo is addressing Juliet’s apparently lifeless body in the Capulet tomb. This was edited to remove the references to Tybalt, a crucial change so that Romeo spoke of “With And worms that are thy shalt be our chambermaids”.

Juliet rose from the bed and they danced together speaking lines taken from throughout the play, ending with Juliet’s “Give me thy hand”.

Romeo talked of his fervent love for Juliet using his lines addressed to Benvolio, lines spoken by Lady Capulet about Paris, as well as by Capulet about himself (Scene One).

He was quite chirrupy as a middle-aged man in love: “O heavy lightness! serious vanity!” Romeo sat in a chair stage right and handed a front row audience member his champagne flute. At “Read o’er the volume of her glorious face” he toured the front row showing them a photo of Juliet he kept in his wallet.

Juliet entered through the door causing Romeo to respond “But soft! What light through yonder doorway breaks!” Juliet rolled her eyes and went back out again. This was funny, but the comedy seemed to rely on this exchange being a joke consciously referencing the original play for humorous effect.

Once Juliet had gone, Romeo continued with that speech until Juliet re-entered. He remarked “It is my lady, O, it is my love” as Juliet sat in the chair silently taking the champagne glass that had been left with an audience member. She put her hand on her cheek, prompting Romeo’s comment “that I might touch that cheek!”

Juliet moved centre stage and began “Gallop apace…” with some alterations so that instead of “strange love, grown bold” she spoke of “young love, grown old”. She took his jacket from the back of the chair and put it on herself, which overwhelmed her as it was too big. But it was the next best thing to having him. This was characteristic of the textual tweaking to adapt the original to the age of the characters.

Romeo grasped her from behind and fondled her chest, to which she responded coyly “O gentle Romeo”. They reverted to an almost straight run-through of dialogue from the balcony scene. Juliet placed his jacket back on him and they seemed very tactile and in love.

Romeo swore by the moon, and Juliet asked “what satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” leading into an exchange partly based on fragments of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Juliet spoke the first seven lines of Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away.

This introduced a theme of ageing and yellowing leaves.

Romeo replied with the beginning of Sonnet 104:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still.

and part of Sonnet 102:

Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;

He also spoke some invented lines concluding with the modern sounding “The universe I see when I see you”.

Juliet left through the door but returned shortly afterwards.

The young Juliet’s forgetfulness in the balcony scene “I have forgot why I did call thee back” was comically transformed into this Juliet’s senior moment with Romeo jokingly promising to “stand here till thou remember it”. They eventually parted in “sweet sorrow”.

Dream

Romeo entered down the stage right walkway in a dressing gown (Scene Two). Starting with Friar Laurence’s description of “The grey-eyed morn”, he described a dream in which he saw Juliet piercing herself with a knife, using the Nurse’s description of Tybalt’s wound. He stood over Juliet in the bed as she tossed and turned, writhing in agony, as he said:

I saw the wound, I saw it with mine eyes,–
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A piteous corse, a bloody piteous corse;
Pale, pale as ashes, all bedaub’d in blood,
All in gore-blood; I swounded at the sight.

Romeo used Friar Laurence’s remark that “violent delights have violent ends”.

Juliet awoke and came forward in a bath robe. Romeo told her of his troublesome dream. She comforted him with dialogue borrowed from other characters. She turned on a radio telling him “We must have you dance”: Mercutio’s line to the love-struck Romeo. As the radio played Dean Martin singing Sway, she began to dance, peeling back her bath robe to reveal her swimsuit underneath.

Romeo continued to talk about his bad dream, describing his “soul of lead”. This continued with Juliet speaking Mercutio’s lines in response to Romeo (“friend” changed to “wife”) until Juliet launched in Mercutio’s wonderful Queen Mab speech.

She agreed that in talking of dreams she was talking of nothing, inserting “thy fearful, deathful dreams” before “which are the children of an idle brain” to persuade Romeo that his bad dream was another kind of nothing.

She took Romeo’s lines from 5.1 to insist that “My dreams presage some joyful news at hand”.

Romeo concluded with his own lines from the start of 2.1 “Can I go forward when my heart is here? Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out.”

They began to dance, but almost immediately Juliet went into a spasm as her leg gave way under her. She collapsed to the ground. This was the first indication that something was seriously wrong with her.

The next scene (Three) saw a marked deterioration in Juliet’s condition. She sat in a chair and tried to clutch a photo album. Her grip was so weak that it fell from her hand several times. On each occasion Romeo replaced it. She spoke a modified version of the Nurse’s lines about Juliet as if speaking of her own dead child. A photo of the child was projected onto the screen. She said she was expecting news using lines from when she awaited the return of the Nurse.

Romeo busied himself at the other side of the stage as if in the garden collecting herbs, using Friar Laurence’s relevant lines. He picked a herb and looked it up in his small plant guide. In view of later developments, Romeo’s plant gathering was of notable significance.

The scene switched to Juliet alone in bed. She awoke and, using an invented line, described how “A deadly sickness now chills up my veins” followed by lines from herself and Romeo to describe her condition, concluding with “O, break, my heart! poor bankrupt, break at once!”

She climbed out of bed and collapsed on the ground. Romeo entered to find her there and, letting fall the flowers he had brought her, tried to lift her up. He pulled on her arm three times but could not support her. Each time she fell back she offered up a single frail arm for him to grasp.

The scene changed back to Juliet in her chair. Romeo brought her a letter. This was obviously some sort of medical report, because when she showed Romeo the contents, he asked whether she were “past hope, past cure, past help?” words originally used by Juliet herself.

Juliet confirmed the bad news using Capulet’s lines “All things that we ordained festival, turn from their office to black funeral”. But Romeo reassured her of his support using part of Sonnet 116 “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. O no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken”. He picked her up and danced with her.

Romeo expressed his dismay using a rearranged part of Sonnet 65:

O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?

Since Not brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power…

The end of this was completed by Juliet:

…How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

Romeo continued with a version of Sonnet 64:

That O Time will come and take my love away.
And, pale, I cower to think upon that day [invented line]
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Juliet used an amended Friar Laurence line to tell Romeo that she knew he would expect her to “bear this work of heaven with patience”.

Using invented lines mixed with some altered originals, Juliet expressed her wish “to choose to sleep” rather than continue to suffer.

Romeo responded with an altered Capulet line “Death, that hath ta’en her would take thee hence to make me wail, ties up my tongue, and will not let me speak.”

Juliet’s preference for death over slow, undignified decline was expressed using altered lines about her dislike of Paris, so that she would prefer to leap from battlements rather than die slowly. An invented line insisted that Romeo should “help me sleep”.

With the word “Go” now standing euphemistically for dying, Romeo insisted that he would go with her. He complained that “every little mouse, every unworthy thing” in heaven would be able to see her and “Romeo may not”.

Juliet borrowed Friar Laurence’s lines to chide Romeo for his “womanish tears” with Romeo rebuking her “Thou cut’st my head off with a golden axe, and smilest upon the stroke that murders me.”

Juliet used lines original spoken by Benvolio to tell Romeo to find another love: “Take thou some new infection to thy eye” and “Compare her my face with some those that I soon shall show, and I that will make thee think thy swan a crow.” But this offended the “devout religion” of Romeo’s eye.

In a reversal of roles, Romeo wished that Juliet would go “no further than a wanton’s bird, who lets it hop a little from her hand”. They sank to the floor to sing “O mistress mine” from Twelfth Night, with its telling lines “What’s to come is still unsure” and “Youth’s a stuff will not endure”.

Feet

Juliet was in a wheelchair for the next scene (Four). Romeo had to position her feet on its foot rest as she had now lost the use of her legs. Juliet spoke part of Sonnet 65:

O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,

With Romeo responding with part of Sonnet 64 and a recurrence of an invented line used in the previous scene:

Time will come and take my love away.
And, pale, I cower to think upon that day

The same exchange was repeated twice with a blackout between to indicate the passage of time during which she had deteriorated to the point of being fed with a spoon, but spat the food out again.

After she had been fed, Romeo lifted her up and washed her face with a cloth.

At one point in this sequence, she appeared to revive completely and danced feverishly, brandishing apparently healthy legs in what might have been her waking dream or wish fulfilment fantasy.

Romeo placed Juliet in her bed where she tossed and turned. She used Capulet’s “all things now change them to the contrary” and also Mercutio’s dying words about being “peppered”.

She spoke like a demented person using the Nurse’s lines about the baby Juliet to talk of her dead daughter. Romeo turned his back in resignation using Lady Capulet’s “Enough of this. I prithee, hold thy peace.” But Juliet continued, just as the Nurse did, using slightly altered lines to pursue the same subject.

Romeo questioned her using Capulet’s image of the tearful Juliet being like “a bark, a sea, a wind”.

Juliet chillingly used altered lines of Romeo’s to ask him, “Doth thou not think me an old murderer”. The last two words were very apt to this reworking of the play.

Juliet openly asked Romeo to kill her with poison, intimating “I do spy a kind of hope” that she would “soon sleep in quiet”. Romeo promised “I’ll help thee hence”.

A solitary Romeo announced that he had dreamt of an apothecary, using his original description of the shop he had visited (Scene Five). But he was already in possession of the “soon-speeding gear as will disperse itself through all the veins that the life-weary taker may fall dead”. He went to the front of the stage and picked up a small blue bottle which had been there throughout the entire performance.

Scene Six began as a replay of the Prologue with Juliet in bed as Romeo approached, addressing the sight as “thou detestable maw, thou womb of death”, but this time with the context of Juliet’s degenerative illness adding new meaning.

Instead of continuing with Romeo’s words over Juliet’s body in the tomb, the production reverted to an edited version of “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”.

Juliet said “What must be shall be” to which Romeo replied “That’s a certain text”. Using Friar Laurence’s line as a prelude to their suicide pact was quite disturbing.

In an invented line, Juliet told Romeo not to think of present woes but on “the years of joy and peace behind”. Romeo took the blue bottle into the bed with him as the pair settled down for the night.

Juliet awoke and articulated her fears “What if his mixture does not work at all”, which would mean that she when she woke the next day “shall I not be distraught, environed with all these hideous fears”. The “hideous fears” here were not the bones of the Capulet tomb but her own fears about her future deterioration.

The couple went into a role reversed version of the lark/nightingale exchange, with Romeo speaking Juliet’s lines, hearing the nightingale, not wanting her to “go” i.e. die, and Juliet using Romeo’s lines about the lark and leaving for Mantua. Romeo eventually accepted Juliet’s version and agreed it was morning that she would soon “go”.

Romeo administered the poison to her with a hushed “Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast.”

Returning to lines from the balcony scene, Juliet wished Romeo farewell. He asked her if they would ever see each other again. She doubted it not and concluded with Romeo’s “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

Romeo watched her die as he uttered the fragment “Adieu, adieu. Parting is…” Realising she was dead, he kissed her using a Juliet line “My dismal scene I needs must act alone”. He exclaimed “Here’s to my love”, drank from the bottle and fell dead beside her.

After a period of stillness the pair rose from their deathbed looking bright and refreshed. In this Epilogue we saw them falling in love for the first time at the Capulet ball. Romeo remarked on the lady enriching the hand of knight and launched into the famous “If I profane with my unworthiest hand…” This sequence continued until Juliet told him he kissed by the book.

They both spoke “O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard. Being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial.” Juliet concluded with “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. Give me thy hand.”

They took each other by the hand and walked away, Romeo finally putting a comforting arm around Juliet.

Conclusions

The ending felt slightly odd because it represented a much earlier point in time, but did not contain sufficient cues to make this convincing. The text assumes that the couple look younger, but such a quick change cannot be made in their appearance.

Viewed another way, the ending could be a fantasy shared by the dying couple rather than an actual re-enactment of the beginning of their relationship.

The use of Shakespeare’s sonnets to insert truly adult sentiment into a story of young love was seamless and effective.

The power of language was used to express the heightened emotions engendered by love against a backdrop of sickness rather than health. But then perhaps love is at its most intense at precisely the moments when it is so severely tested.

Life during wartime

Troilus and Cressida, Swan Stratford, 10 August 2012

Director Mark Ravenhill kept of tally of the number of walkouts from the early performances, while The Wooster Group responded to one individual’s complaint that it was “most offensive” by congratulating themselves on the superlative.

This was an experimental production that elicited an extreme response from some spectators.

The co-production between the RSC and The Wooster Group had each company rehearse separately. The resulting clash of theatrical styles was intended to reflect the clash of nations in the play.

The RSC played the Greeks as British/Commonwealth troops using their standard acting and staging, while The Wooster Group under their director Elizabeth LeCompte played the Trojans as Native Americans using innovative techniques. The most remarkable of these saw the actors copying the movements of (mostly Inuit) people from film extracts shown on four monitors at the corners of the thrust.

Each group used one side of a revolve. The Wooster Group had a tipi and campfire to represent the Trojan camp, while on the other side the RSC played against a mirror with a hospital trolley and screen used for Achilles’ tent. The divide was turned edge on for the later scenes where both sides came together in battle.

Dispensing with the prologue (reinserted for London run), the performance began with Troilus (Scott Shepherd) telling Pandarus (Greg Mehrten) of his love for Cressida (1.1). They wore Native American garb and talked in a flat monotone, meant to approximate to an authentic speech pattern.

This had the effect of making the text appear to emanate from a strange alien culture. Indeed, from a 21st century British perspective, the world of the Native Americans is no less foreign than that of the historic Trojans. The Wooster Group staging brought out this cultural distance very effectively. Placing the language of Shakespeare in this setting also served to remind us of the cultural gap between us and the early modern culture that shaped the play.

Pandarus was slightly camp and paunchy. He had a blue bottle, which he held to his side of his head and jerked backwards as if drinking from it. This was a sideways nod to native alcoholism. He also intermittently sang a song about an historical land grab.

Aeneas (Andrew Schneider) wore armour made from Styrofoam in the form of a Greek statue strapped to his back. He asked why Troilus was not on the field of battle

When Pandarus spoke to Cressida (Marin Ireland) in praise of Troilus, she avoided eye-contact with him, looking instead at the monitors facing her at the front of the thrust (1.2). Whether this was the result of her monitor-watching or an attempt to replicate native avoidance of eye-contact with a respected person, she appeared to be strangely absent from events. This made her wonderfully enigmatic. This departure from naturalistic acting was compelling to watch.

Pandarus and Cressida watched the Trojans returning from battle with Cressida climbing to the top of the tipi for a better view.

Cressida explained one obscure term by expanding it, so that she spoke of “a bawd (a pimp)”. Given the opacity of much of the language this was an odd word to elucidate.

Cressida’s final speech in 1.2, in which she admitted liking Troilus but did not want to seem too keen “Achievement is command; ungained, beseech”, was especially moving. She was enigmatically distracted, perhaps the outward sign of deep-seated love for Troilus.

As with other non-standard practices within The Wooster Group’s scenes, it had the effect of focusing on the spoken word. The overload of novelty almost cancelled out the theatrical to make it a reading.

The revolve turned to show a plain mirrored wall as the Greeks entered to the sound of pumping music looking exuberant (1.3). But the music quickly went silent and the Greeks physically wilted. Unsuccessful in battle, they lay wounded, one on a hospital bed.

This brief sequence formed a prologue showing their confident arrival to besiege Troy and the subsequent lack of success that had broken their morale.

Transition

The rapid transition from bravado to despondency made sense of Agamemnon’s (Danny Webb) opening question “What grief hath set the jaundice on your cheeks?” He waved a small book saying their problems were the “trials of great Jove”.

Ulysses pinned down to the problem to Achilles’ lack of respect. Scott Handy’s Ulysses was the stand-out performance on the RSC side. When he spoke it was like he had his own personal key that unlocked the power of the language.

Like all the Greeks in this first scene Ulysses wore modern camouflage trousers, his look completed with some bookish glasses. Ajax and Thersites changed out of these standard uniforms later on into distinctive outfits.

Joe Dixon’s Achilles was indeed puffed up with self regard. He looked strong as he strutted around bare-chested, flexing a bicep when his name was mentioned. Ulysses fondled Achilles a little too enthusiastically when talking of his sinew. Ulysses read from his notebook as Achilles and Patroclus (Clifford Samuel) acted out his verbal account of their lampooning.

The parts of Nestor and Patroclus were doubled so that the actor was effectively doing an impression of his performance in the other role.

The entry of the Trojan Aeneas to bring Hector’s challenge saw the Greeks go into a formation, stamping their feet to punctuate their lines without looking at the arrival. In a show of bravado they all answered in chorus, with Agamemnon eventually coming forward to speak with him individually.

The conspiracy of Ulysses and Nestor to bring Achilles to heel by arranging for Ajax (Aidan Kelly) to answer the challenge was engagingly presented.

Thersites (Zubin Varla) was a Lily Savage style character, similar to that seen in Cheek By Jowl’s production, but this one was in a wheelchair, kneeling as if legless (2.1). His chair sported a pair of comedy breasts slung at the back and a hand-held microphone slotted into a stand on the arm.

Ajax wore a muscle body suit, had long straggly hair and red-tinted glasses, making him very reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s wrestler. His body suit had tattoos including his name in Greek; the words “I’m awesome” and a Nike swoosh with Greek writing underneath in a nod to the goddess of victory. He moved around as if mid-bout in a series of standardised moves.

In another simplification, Thersites’ reference to “brach” became “bitch”. Annoyed by Thersites’ refusal to tell him about the proclamation, Ajax lifted the fool out of his chair and threw him to the ground, but he was subsequently replaced in it by Achilles.

The revolve switched back to the Trojan set again as Cassandra (Jibz Cameron) crawled out from the tipi to deliver her prophecies of doom (2.2). The oddness of her monotone delivery accentuated the strangeness of her warnings.

The Trojans passed round a peace pipe and discussed whether to keep Helen. Everyone was relieved when Hector came round to Troilus’ opinion and agreed that she should stay.

Bitter Thersites reared out of his seat wishing the bone-ache on the whole camp (2.3). His lines were altered so that his reference to “war for a placket” became for “the slit”.

A curtain in front of a hospital trolley represented Achilles tent, near which Patroclus stood in gold high heels. Thersites went into the tent and sat reading the Penguin Classic edition of Homer’s Iliad.

Annoyed with the continuing insolence, Agamemnon brought Patroclus to heel, hooking his neck with an umbrella. Patroclus exited at the back of the set to return from the walkway as Nestor, which was a great switch.

Ulysses showed himself to be a consummate actor when stoking Ajax’s sense of self worth, convincing him that it was below his dignity to go to Achilles rather than have Achilles come to him.

The scene ended with Agamemnon drawing lots from a hat with Ajax the winner and thus the candidate to fight Hector.

In Priam’s (Bruce Odland) palace musicians played “Love, love, nothing but love” with added line “All you need is love” as Pandarus had a comic exchange with the Servant (3.1). This sequence allowed for Scott Handy to change costume to emerge as Helen.

But when he emerged as the slightly frumpy looking object of Paris’ (Gary Wilmes) attention, the whole scenario looked odd. However, the re-emergence of Scott Handy after this interlude pointed towards the intriguing possibility that this might have been deliberately inserted because Helen was originally doubled with one of the Greek officers.

Paris and Helen hugged when he insisted that she should help him to disarm Hector (Ari Fliakos).

The time came for boy and girl to meet. Troilus speech in expectation of seeing Cressida (3.2) provided another instance of the play’s exotically beautiful language being complemented by the ‘noble savagery’ of the Trojans.

When Cressida appeared before Troilus, she wore a small veil. She turned away as indicated in text and the “billing” saw her rub her noses with her love.

Monitor

The world of love works by its own rules. As if to bring this out, this sequence saw Troilus and Cressida coordinate their movements with monitor images to a strikingly obvious extent.

They struck blows at each other in time with a red flash that appeared on screen as they assiduously copied the film. They fell to ground as if shocked by electricity, not for any textual reason, but solely in imitation of the video sequence on the monitor.

More naturalistically, Cressida rested her head on Troilus’ chest as per a clip from a post-war Hollywood movie.

The Americans’ trademark technique reached epic heights of absurdity in a sequence in which Troilus and Cressida began by hugging; she then knelt before him as he put his hands around her neck as if strangling her, after which they lay on the ground. These actions had no relation to the dialogue and were all copied from the film displayed on the monitors.

One possible explanation for this bizarre sequence is that it coincided with a moment of intense emotion in the play and was designed to emphasise its significance.

Troilus carried Cressida away without kissing her as they went off to bed, at which point the interval came.

The Greeks entered and the revolve turned back to the mirror at the start of the second half (3.3). Calchas (Scott Shepherd again) wore an all-encompassing foam suit to request the prisoner swap that would return his daughter Cressida to him.

Agamemnon changed into an Australian Diomedes by deftly swapping hats. The choice of an Australian accent for this lusty character played on an ocker stereotype.

This doubling was overtly theatrical. It was fun, cheeky and put attention back on the language as the hat change character swap underscored the unrealistic nature of what we were seeing, rather like a pause at a poetry reading when the page is turned.

Notifying the intended swap to the Trojans, Diomedes’ lascivious intentions towards Cressida irritated Troilus.

The Greek commanders went to work on Achilles trying to manipulate him out of his sulk. He seemed flattered at first, and proud, because he assumed that the general had come to speak with him. But Agamemnon paused when saying “What says… Achilles” as if having to be reminded of his name.

When Achilles realised that he was being slighted, he began to cry “What, am I poor of late?” He pointed at Patroclus when talking of “beauty born in the face”. And his reference to a woman’s longing to see Hector was made explicit when he finally met him.

Ulysses engaged Achilles with an intellectual intensity that indicated that he thought the soldier incapable of seeing through his ruse. But Achilles was unmoved. There was some light relief when Patroclus and Thersites mimicked Ajax.

The handover of Cressida to the Greeks saw Diomedes and Aeneas wrestle each other by placing a thumb in the mouth of their opponent (4.1). This fitted with their talk of future conflict beyond the present truce. Diomedes dispraised Helen saying “She’s bitter to her cunt-try”. Paris waved a charm in front of Diomedes’ face to ward off his trickery.

Cressida and Troilus appeared briefly before stealing off into the tent where they kissed (4.2). Aeneas called and Pandarus tried to send him away, but he eventually gained admittance.

Cressida was upset to hear that she had to leave. She picked up Troilus’ boots and carried them, walking in a circle, then put them on and walked in them awkwardly. She knelt and scratched her thighs, which bore marks as if she had habitually injured herself in that way.

The brief scene 4.3 was cut, so that the action continued with the young couple exchanging love tokens (4.4). Troilus and Cressida swapped a sleeve and a glove, which were transferred to the other’s arm by linking them and pulling the items across in one go. This emphasised the unbreakable connection between them. The lascivious Diomedes collected Cressida.

On the day of the combat, Ajax was wheeled in standing on a trolley to the sound of rock music (4.5). He played guitar rather than the event being heralded by trumpets.

Martial

Cressida was brought in and was immediately noticed. The Greeks did not physically kiss her or touch her, instead their attention to her was symbolised. They brought their arms together sharply at the wrists as they stamped, a display that emphasised the martial force of their attraction.

Cressida took off her native dress onstage and replaced it with a Greek dress in a brief moment of partial nudity. Menelaus tried his luck and puckered up, but Cressida refused. Ulysses spoke to Cressida with his back turned and was rebuffed.

Hector and Ajax wrestled but the Trojan refused to finish off Ajax as they were related. At this point Achilles burst in wearing a red dress saying he had “fed mine eyes on thee…” Achilles responded dramatically to Hector, preening as he told him to “Behold thy fill”. Achilles’ promise to destroy Hector “there, or there, or there” ended with rude suggestion.

During the evening’s festivities, Troilus asked Ulysses to help him find Cressida.

Thersites gave a letter to Achilles and then started railing as Achilles withdrew to read the letter, which he tore up in despair because it had reminded him of his promise not to fight (5.1).

Ulysses escorted Troilus to see Cressida (5.2) and the two men positioned themselves stage left to observe. Thersites sat upstage in his chair. Cressida appeared stage right with Diomedes and vacillated as she was tempted by the Greek.

Troilus grew ever more despondent as his love’s lack of constancy became apparent. Thersites provided a cynical commentary on events punctuated with interjections such as “Fry, lechery, fry”.

Cressida gave Diomedes the sleeve gifted to her by Troilus. She immediately changed her mind and took it back, but this retrieval was yet another of Cressida’s strangely absent and dispassionate moments. The line “Nay do not snatch it from me” was given to Cressida, so that she spoke it with resignation after Diomedes had taken the sleeve once again.

Her wonderful parting speech “Troilus farewell” was full of emptiness. Drained of all happiness, she lay down on the ground. Troilus moved upstage of her and mirrored her posture.

After she left, Troilus came forward and lay on exactly the same spot she had occupied in precisely the same pose. His words “Was Cressid here?” became one of the great moments of the performance. So desperate was Troilus to be at one with his lost love, that he tried to occupy the space she had just vacated, as if that spot retained some aura with which it was possible to communicate. He attempted this almost physical unity with Cressida in the face of overwhelming evidence of her emotional absence. This was and was not Cressid.

Troilus used a knife to start cutting up the glove Cressida had given him. Ulysses tried to stop him. But Troilus continued stabbing at the glove, crying “False, false, false!”

His anguished speech was peppered with references to the gods of classical mythology. The exoticism of these invocations was accentuated by them emanating from a Native American.

Thersites summarised the action with his incredibly cynical “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery”.

Hector’s household was represented by the tipi outside which an Asian Andromache (Jennifer Lim) stood with a papoose (5.3). Hector ignored all the warnings of his prophetic sister Cassandra, his wife and Priam. Pandarus brought Cressida’s letter to Troilus, which he tore up and scattered.

The start of the battle was described by Thersites, and we soon saw a melee of cricket bats and lacrosse sticks (5.4). Hector challenged Thersites, who took off his wig to prove himself an unworthy opponent.

The Greeks carried in the dead Patroclus who was still holding his fan (5.5). The doubling of this character with Nestor then obliged the actor to switch into that character to bemoan Patroclus’ death. This deliberately played with the concept of identity echoing the sentiment expressed previously by Troilus about Cressida: this was and was not Nestor.

Patroclus’ blood was collected in a helmet into which Achilles and Ajax dipped their hands before smearing the blood on their faces swearing revenge.

The battle continued with the combat between Hector and Achilles coming to a non-contact stand-off with Achilles vowing to fight him when refreshed (5.6).

The Myrmidons, dressed in white boiler suits and masks, were dispatched by Achilles to find Hector (5.7). The end of this brief scene was spoilt slightly during the Stratford run. Thersites rose from his wheelchair after declaring himself a bastard, stripped naked and pushed the chair offstage. This gratuitous nudity was incredible silly was quite rightly was dropped for the Riverside run.

Hector lay down a captured piece of Greek armour (5.8). The Myrmidons surrounded him and he slumped dead. His assailants carried him away in this fixed slouched position. This was changed at the Riverside so that he simply walked off after lying dead on the ground.

News of Hector’s death reached the rest of the Trojans (5.9). After this, Troilus declared that all was lost, but fought on. The final sour note was struck by Pandarus who bequeathed us his diseases (5.10).

Conclusions

Bold theatrical experiments are always welcome. This particular experiment worked well enough but was an acquired taste.

The distinct and puzzling performance style of The Wooster Group did not come at the expense of clarity. The text was perfectly comprehensible and at no point was the action of their sequences incomprehensible.

Actors take direction. What appears to be spontaneous movement is rehearsed and subject to minute control by a director.

The fact that the Trojans mimicked the movements of actors in projected film sequences merely made clearer this hidden aspect of the process. The guts of the production were displayed on the outside.

Paradoxically, the more intriguing aspects of the production was so disconcerting that they almost cancelled themselves out, leaving the audience to focus more specifically on the text, which was the only feature of some sequences that could be readily processed.

This was and was not Troilus and Cressida.

Life during wartime

King John in love

King John, Swan Stratford, 8 June 2012

The stage was covered with a greyish patterned carpet, reminiscent of a chain hotel, decorated with ugly potted plants. A wide set of steps led up to a back wall consisting of party balloons held behind a net.

Pippa Nixon’s character was an amalgam of Philip the Bastard and Hubert. In the programme she was simply called The Bastard, but given that her own name Pippa is a short form of Philippa, the female form of Philip, this review will refer to her character as Pippa.

The performance began with Pippa in her multi-coloured leggings and blue hoodie trying to play Land of Hope and Glory on a banjo (1.1). She experimented to find the right notes and then got us to join in singing. She commented on how we were doing, pointing out the talent of a group of ladies in the stage left part of the ground floor.

The tune then played out over speakers as King John crowned himself at the top of the carpeted stairs.

Chatillon was an effete Frenchman in a pastel pink suit, who brought news of the French claim to the crown of England. The modern setting meant that the King’s rebuke was deliberately given contemporary resonances with British patriotism and xenophobia.

Siobhan Redmond was glorious as Eleanor and brought her habitual relish to the part.

Robert and Pippa entered so that the King could resolve their inheritance dispute. Robert looked bookish in complete contrast to the bright, relaxed Pippa. She impishly mocked his claim, repeatedly saying there was no reason for it “except to get the land”.

Pippa accompanied l. 98 “Your tale…” with a bawdy gesture. Robert tried to make a similar gesture in return when describing his mother’s indiscretion but could only do so half-heartedly, again emphasising the difference in their characters, Pippa being the lustier.

Eleanor took a liking to Pippa and saw a resemblance in attitude between her and Richard the Lionheart. Pippa decided to forego her inheritance to follow Eleanor who validated Pippa’s warrior woman status by declaring herself “I am a soldier…” In essence, one female warrior invited another to follow her. King John knighted Pippa using a fountain pen.

Pippa’s soliloquy on posh, upmarket society was funny as she mocked the accents and pretensions of those among whom she was now moving.

Lady Faulconbridge’s motorbike could be heard offstage before she entered in her leathers.

Lewis, with leisurewear sunglasses on his head like a playboy, spoke to the boy Arthur borrowing some of the King Philip’s lines to explain the situation regarding the crown in patronising fashion with explanatory noises (2.1). Austria knelt before Arthur who forgave him for killing Richard the Lionheart.

King Philip made a grand entrance loudly proclaiming the preparations for war. Chatillon entered in the same pastel pink outfit with his suitcase to bring news of the impending English invasion.

King John and his party entered above. He showed a great deal of closeness with his mother Eleanor. When she set upon Constance he adlibbed “C’mon Mum”. Pippa was still in her leggings but now wore them with a low-cut top under a black jacket.

King Philip set out the claim that would make Arthur king of England. King John took off his crown, only to replace it again before he patronisingly offered Arthur a Kinder Egg saying “I’ll give thee more than e’er the coward hand of France can win”. This was picked up in Constance’s rebuke to Eleanor’s “grandam” comment saying that he would get in return “a plum, a cherry and a fig”.

In response, Arthur was very realistic in acting fed up at being the centre of so much fuss.

Eleanor produced a piece of paper that demonstrated Arthur could not be heir to the throne and Constance screwed it up.

Theatre

Mics were brought on stage for the siege of Angiers to enable kings to address its people. Lots of townsmen stood in the galleries and spoke in pairs. King John pointed to the crown to underline his claim. Pippa joined in at l.350 to say “now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel”. She had fun pointing out that the townspeople were standing “As in a theatre, whence they gape and point at your industrious scenes and acts of death.” She suggested that the two kings join together to attack the city.

The town chorus also spoke the words of Hubert (his other lines transferred to Pippa) suggesting the marriage between Lewis and Blanche, who stood on the steps. Lewis was not sure as his reply to “can you love this lady” was “Nay…” which initially sounded negative until followed up with the rest.

Pippa’s aside about “vile lout” Lewis fitted well with her impish female trickster characterisation.

Blanche’s first words were faltering and not understood by the others until clarified. She was bit of a blonde bimbo.

The wedding party lined up for a photo on the step. Pippa stood with a camera as they froze. Underlining her significance as a central character, she was able to freeze time and soliloquise about the “Mad world” that Commodity was able to turn away from a good war.

The wedding then took place. The mics were again used so that King John could sing I Say a Little Prayer in duet with Philip. The two kings chest bumped each other as Lewis and Blanche recreated a scene from the film Dirty Dancing to the sound of Time of My Life. King Philip had a great time and ended up taking his shirt off to reveal his vest.

Silent messengers were rebuked by distraught Constance (2.2). They wore party hats as they had just come from the wedding party to tell her of the arrangement that would disinherit Arthur.

The wedding party crashed down the stairs but stopped before reaching the ground where Constance sat and bewailed her misfortune (3.1). King Philip talked of pawning her his majesty while still in his vest.

The arrival of the female Pandulph (a Mary Portas figure) was announced with “Here comes the holy legate of the pope”. This was repeated so that everyone bowed and moved to the sides to make way for her. She was cast as party pooper. Her comment about the kings being the “anointed deputies of heaven” was sarcastic given their dishevelment, party hats and vests.

King John’s response to her question was standard piece of brash anticlericalism. Pandulph held up her ring to excommunicate King John. King Philip, realising he was being asked to start a war with a relative by marriage, pleaded for peace.

The cool and aloof Pandulph’s description of the church’s curse as “a mother’s curse” was significant, as it was delivered by a female character.

In general, this production’s use of female characters for male ones enabled it to revel in these ambiguities.

In contrast to her initial faltering speech, Blanche was very eloquent in her dilemma. She faced choosing between the two factions lined up either side of the stage, saying “Which is the side that I must go withal?”

Pippa entered down the steps with a Sainsbury’s bag from which she retrieved Austria’s severed head (3.2). Eleanor was with the captured Arthur. Hubert’s lines were given to Pippa. This meant that King John’s declaration of devoted friendship (with its mention of love) began to look like sexual attraction. He gave her a necklace as a love token. Having a woman on the receiving end of these very words gave them a different significance, in effect a sideways comment on the original text’s male intimacy. King John instructed Pippa to kill Arthur.

Constance’s grief at the loss of Arthur was excellent and passionate (3.3). But if this production was all about Pippa, then was Constance’s grief sidelined and made less significant?

Constance pulled down her hair as indicated in the text’s implied stage directions and was told by King Philip to put it up again. Her description of Arthur as “my food, my all the world” was incredibly moving.

Pandulph gave Lewis a lesson in political tactics, saying that King John would kill Arthur and thereby pave way for his own claim to the throne.

Pippa got ready with the executioner to put out Arthur’s eyes (4.1). Her line “His words do take possession of my bosom” originally spoken by Hubert, was very significant. Spoken by a female character, whose bosom was very much in evidence in her low-cut top, constantly reinforcing her femininity, these lines made her seem very female in her maternal compassion for a troubled child.

The prospect of the boy being injured was very shocking. The executioner was called and Arthur offered no resistance when being placed on the block. But the iron had gone cold.

This sequence came just after Constance’s powerful speech about her maternal care for Arthur and so could not help but be influenced by it. Pippa relented and this act of mercy looked right and in character. At this point the interval came.

Interval

The second half (4.2) began with Pippa singing “Civilian” by Wye Oak. King John recrowned himself at the top of the steps, at which point confetti snowed down from the flies, poppers popped and the dozens of latex balloons broke free and cascaded down the steps onto the stage. A neon sign “for god and england” lit up at the back.

King John put the crown on twice, either to make a point about the definitiveness of the gesture, or to signify that he was donning it for the second time.

The nobles demanded Arthur’s freedom. Pippa entered and whispered to John the lie that she had killed him. Pembroke’s line very cutting “Indeed we heard how near his death he was before the child himself felt he was sick”. King John heard of the deaths of Eleanor and Constance.

The sequence involving Peter the Prophet was cut, but Pippa did talk (as Hubert) about the “five moons” that had been seen by people foretelling bad things because of the death of Arthur.

King John argued with Pippa claiming that the murder was her idea and essentially blaming her for the problems he was experiencing. He groped and climbed on top of her asserting his dominance and also his anger. This demonstrated that their relationship was sexualised, and his “you made me do it” stance looked like classic misogyny. He claimed: “Hadst not thou been by… this murder had not come into my mind”.

Pippa was relieved to be able to tell King John that Arthur was in fact alive. She described her hand as “yet a maiden and an innocent hand”. This was another expression of male weakness conveyed in female terms that became ironic when spoken by a woman.

Arthur walked the wall of the castle, represented by the top of the steps and gradually made his way down to the bottom of the steps stage left (4.3). Another Arthur appeared at the stage right top of the steps and turned his back to the audience. When that Arthur jumped and fell down the back of the steps, the Arthur at the front collapsed a short distance onto the stage where he lay until discovered by the nobles.

Pippa entered on Hubert’s cue speaking his lines, drawing a gun in response to being threatened with a knife, saying ironically “I think my sword’s as sharp as yours”. But then she lamented Arthur’s death using Philip’s lines, such as “It is a damned and a bloody work”.

Obviously the argument between Philip and Hubert was cut. In the text, Philip comments on how easily Hubert picked Arthur up. Pippa was given a modified version of this so that she could comment on how easily she could carry him, saying “How easy do I take all England up”, continuing that speech to the end of the scene.

King John faced upstage and kneeled before Pandulph (5.1). He held his hands together in prayer with the crown slotted over the top of them. He offered it to Pandulph who took the crown and placed it on the king’s head to mark his return to the fold of the faithful.

Pippa entered with news about the Dauphin’s advances and how the nobles had turned against him when they discovered Arthur dead. King John was able to complain to Pippa directly that she had assured him Arthur was alive, rather than complain to Philip about the assurances of the absent Hubert.

Glister

When Pippa began to bolster the king saying “But wherefore do you droop?”, Why look you sad?” exhorting him to “glister like the god of war”, she resembled Lady Macbeth encouraging her husband. If she had said “Infirm of purpose” the line would have fitted exactly.

This underscored again how easily male-to-male dialogue could be recast as the words of wife to husband.

Lewis and Salisbury were getting ready for battle, with Salisbury saying how difficult he found it to take arms against his own people (5.2). Blanche was still milling around in her wedding dress under a jacket.

Pandulph appeared on the stage left walkway to declare peace. She demanded that the war preparations be wound up by symbolically wafted them away with a sweep of her wrist. Lewis was still keen on war with England.

Pippa entered at the top of the steps and delivered a big, boastful speech from there about the power and might of King John. Lewis said that she could “outscold us”: the use of a term related to scolding, usually applied to women, was telling when applied to Pippa.

The final scene in the production (5.3-5.6) saw King John looking ill. Messengers appeared in the galleries swapping news. It began with Pippa using one of Hubert’s lines and pointing her gun from the gallery saying: “Who’s there? Speak, ho! Speak quickly, or I shoot” then continuing as Philip saying “Show me the very wound of this ill news: I am no woman, I’ll not swoon at it.” Having Pippa state that she was not a woman produced yet another flash of recognition that the production was again playing with its gender categories.

Others around the galleries responded using Hubert’s words to bring the news of King John’s poisoning. We saw the injured Melun in one of the galleries near the stage.

Down on the stage King John crumpled and started dancing to “Beggin’” by Frankie Valli with its line “Just can’t make it all alone”. The neon sign now had letters missing from it, another indication of decay.

Constance and Arthur entered, mocked King John and then exited after which the king howled in pain. His son Prince Henry asked “How fare’s your majesty?” His reply paused after its first word “Poisoned…” the bareness of which elicited a laugh from the audience.

He was supported by the Prince, but it was Pippa who became his chief comforter. She howled and sat hugging him as he died. Her “Art thou gone so?” merged into her final speech “O, let us pay… rest but true!”

The sense that we were watching the end of a love affair undercut the blood and guts patriotism of the play’s final sentiment about England fearing nothing if it remained true to itself, whatever that is supposed to mean.

Conclusions

Taking the characters of Philip and Hubert and merging them into a new female character had the effect of recasting the play as a love story with some scenes echoing the dialogue between the Macbeths. This was quite a neat solution to the problem of finding a new angle on quite a dry, early Shakespeare history play.

Pippa was the first character to appear, she was the only one who had the ability to stop time and address us in soliloquy. It was her passion over the dead king that closed the play.

But this came at a price. If Pippa was the new centre of the play then that tended to downgrade the significance of the other characters particularly Constance.

The love story was entertaining and the way the production joked with its own gender references was amusing. But this undermined any commentary the play might have contained on the contemporary relevance of its portrayal of England’s relationship with the rest of the world, which seemed to be one of its ambitions given the modern dress staging.

The eternal sunshine of the spotless Richard

Richard III, Swan Theatre Stratford, 20 April 2012

It was not just his puckish quiff of hair, Irish accent and winning smile that made Jonjo O’Neill’s Richard III immensely likeable during his rise to power. There was also his attempt to live in an eternal present where the past did not matter.

A simple mistake, like killing someone’s relative, could be quickly recompensed by offering to marry them. He could murder a wife once she was surplus to requirements and then seek to procure another by similar intrigue.

This Richard’s happy but murderous ambition and strangely optimistic outlook were positive and forward-looking in comparison with the grimness of his dour relatives, themselves mostly murderers, who were in thrall to the past and their grievances.

The performance opened on a brief and uncharacteristic reversal of the underlying situation, with the king and others returning from battle to be greeted by their loving wives and children. This was something from which the unmarried, childless Richard was excluded. He smiled painfully, setting the tone for the self-loathing of his opening soliloquy.

But Richard was not downcast by his plight. His first word “Now” and its subsequent repetitions, underlined his preoccupation with the present and his schemes to alter the future to his liking.

The impish force of his personality gave the impression that England under this Richard would be a bloody mess, but at least it would not be dull.

The grey metal folding doors at back of the set and a floor of the same colour, captured the blandness of the court and its insecure melancholy into which Richard erupted.

His deformities were understated so that no hint of physical grotesqueness was conveyed by his slight limp and insignificant hunch. And he was not a figure of darkness upsetting a righteous and orderly establishment.

King Edward (Mark Jax) sat on his throne and received a bouquet of flowers from Richard, which he proceeded to give quite openly to Mistress Shore (Susie Trayling), who stood to his immediate left, in full view of Queen Elizabeth (Siobhan Redmond) positioned to his right.

The Duchess of York (Sandra Duncan) was prim and proper with a fixed expression as if chewing on the proverbial wasp. The thin and brittle Lady Anne (Pippa Nixon) suffered from a feverishness of mind which caused her first to submit to Richard’s wooing and subsequently to regret her weakness.

Even Richard’s most willing assistant, Buckingham (Brian Ferguson), was a besuited Scot with a constrained, stiff manner, making their alliance an unlikely pairing.

The only character that seemed to rise above all this was Margaret (Paola Dionisotti). After an unconvincing first appearance dramatically spotlit and framed in an archway, she gradually revealed herself to be a kind of ninja figure.

With her combat boots, black clothes, a sleeveless top revealing her toned arms, and with a physical litheness that allowed her to squat on the ground and then stretch up again, she exuded toughness and confidence. No wonder, then, that Queen Elizabeth began to look up to her.

Margaret stamped her foot on the ground as she issued each of her curses on Richard, a gesture which he repeated when turning the curses back on her by completing her “thou detested-“ with “Margaret”.

Richard continued to be a source of fun. There were laughs in the scene where he was presented as a holy man, in an attempt to trick the mayor of London in supporting him, based on the transparent fiction of the image being projected.

It was also difficult not to smile when Richard rejected Anne’s hand and insisted that Buckingham escort him up the steps to his high throne, after which he turned to face the audience and grinned in self-satisfaction at his accomplishment.

But sour notes had already begun to tarnish the jollity.

Rivers and Grey were executed by having ropes looped around their necks which were then pulled tight with a man tugging on each end.

The rough play between Richard and the young Duke of York culminated with the boy being held in an arm lock as Richard pretended to throttle him. But Buckingham’s wagging finger advised Richard to calm down, as he was clearly relishing the game to the point of risking real harm.

The actual murder of Edward’s children could not secure his position, and with his followers falling away and battle with Richmond (Iain Batchelor) impending, Richard’s dream sequence was immensely harrowing.

The speeches by the ghosts were rearranged so that they all appeared and cursed Richard first, mobbing and attacking him. Then they gathered to praise and support Richmond, crowning him and bearing him aloft, before marching right over the prone Richard, who wailed in fear.

The past was coming back to haunt Richard in many ways. When the day of battle arrived, the king and his forces formed a line facing the audience and advanced stamping their feet rhythmically in way directly reminiscent of Margaret’s stamping curses.

During the battle Prince Edward suddenly appeared and ran between Richmond and Richard. This intervention did not secure Richmond with any advantage at first, but after a brief battle, the challenger killed Richard by strangling him on the ground in an arm lock identical to that previously used against the young Duke.

After trying to live in an eternal present, Richard was eventually undone by those who could not forget.

Vincentio in Furs

Measure For Measure, Swan Theatre Stratford, 3 December 2011

The distinctive set dressing of this production offered some clues as to what was in store. The stage floor was black with a partly cobbled surface. A translucent strip curtain hung at the back. Above the stage a light fitting composed of lengths of brass chain draped over a bulb occasionally descended from the flies. Small brass fixtures were placed at regular intervals down the sides of the thrust from which lengths of chain hung down the side of the stage.

In the final few minutes before the house lights went down, pumping music issued from the gallery above the stage, gathering in coherence until the Duke emerged.

Dressed quite flamboyantly, he clicked his fingers to turn on two lights in the recesses at the side of the stage. The “lights” were women posing with S&M styled lamp shades over their heads and they appeared each time the scene was set in the Duke’s office. He lowered his hands and the house lights dimmed at his command.

The Duke looked towards the stage right walkway and summoned Escalus with a wave of his palm, but to his consternation and the audience’s amusement, Escalus appeared on the opposite walkway instead.

The Duke is quite often a subsidiary character to the Isabella/Angelo couple, lurking in the background and merely orchestrating events, rather than standing at their centre.

But the first few moments of this production set a different tone, making the Duke the main character around which the others revolved.

The overtly sensuous decor of the Duke’s palace was rather shocking, because it was more reminiscent of the corruption of the outside world that the new crackdown on vice was meant to eradicate.

The design choices here could have symbolised the corruption and decadence of the state itself. Further hints of this were to appear later.

Angelo (Jamie Ballard) was summoned. He wore a black outfit with a roll neck pullover and a small leather corset around the waist. This looked like another example of decadent corruption infecting the Duke’s court. Its slightly kinky appearance was at odds with Angelo’s outward coldness. On the other hand, it could have been an outward sign that he was inwardly decadent. Or yet again, it could have symbolised the constraint of his professed self-discipline.

Magic

The Duke produced Angelo’s commission from out of nowhere using magic sleight of hand. This attention-seeking behaviour again underlined the Duke’s position as the central character in the play.

Before he departed, the Duke made a great point of stressing his dislike of public acclaim, stating “I do not relish well their loud applause and Aves vehement”. However, the audience laughed at this line because his fur-trimmed coat, magic tricks and general demeanour showed him to be precisely the kind of person who would delight in Aves of any kind.

The following scene (1.2) began with general debauchery behind the translucent curtain accompanied by thumping music. Mistress Overdone and her girls spanked customers, who then emerged in front of the curtain to discuss the current situation in Vienna.

Lucio began to speak, but paused to remove his nipple clamps before continuing. Mistress Overdone told the others about Claudio’s impending execution. After they went off to investigate, Overdone was joined by Pompey who was a stocky, shifty figure with a cigarette permanently stored behind his ear.

The audience reacted instantly to Pompey’s one liners, particularly his animated “Groping for trouts, in a peculiar river”.

The word “houses” was replaced by “brothels” to make clearer sense of Pompey’s news about the demolition of the bordellos. Overdone paused so that her version of the phrase became “houses… of resort”, which made the odd collocation into an almost accidental (possibly euphemistic) comic creation.

Claudio and the pregnant Juliet were brought in by the Provost. Claudio’s explanation of his situation to Lucio saw Mark Quartley provide a bravura display of acting under constraint. Manacled hand and foot, he still managed to use his hands to express his reaction to his impending execution.

The manacles were also faintly reminiscent of the bondage equipment seen in the brothel sequence that opened the scene. This further underscored the idea running through the production that authority was itself corrupt: the constraints of lawful imprisonment were themselves fetishised.

Singing monks brought in a bier at the start of 1.3 and placed it centre stage. One friar remained to accompany it. The cover flew off revealing the Duke underneath, who emerged with a knowing wink to the audience, mouthing “It’s me!” This re-established the Duke as the focus of our attention.

The Duke relished his lengthy explanation of why he had pretended to be travelling abroad. This performance by the Duke meant that his line “Now, pious Sir, you will demand of me, why I do this” caused audience amusement, as the friar appeared to be slightly bored by the Duke’s self-obsession. His professed disdain for idle pleasures seemed comical as he was still wearing his flamboyant clothes.

Novice

A group of nuns entered singing and carried away the bier. One of the nuns stayed behind with the novice Isabella (1.4).

Jodie McNee’s interesting face and interesting voice gave her a distinct presence. However, the deliberate decision to make the Duke the central character meant that she tended to be eclipsed by him. Nevertheless, she did an excellent job of portraying the tension between Isabella’s anger and her desire to passively withdraw from the affairs of the world.

Lucio appeared on the stage right balcony before rushing in at ground level. He spoke to the nun, who kept her vow by refusing to address him. Isabella introduced herself to Lucio and he brought her the bad news about her condemned brother, which she was reluctant to believe.

Lucio found himself resorting to a variety of euphemisms to describe how Claudio had got Juliet pregnant. He plumped for an agricultural metaphor with references to “blossoming” and “foison” culminating in him delving around with his hands, speaking of Claudio’s “full tilth and husbandry”.

Once informed of Claudio’s situation, Isabella’s furrowed brow set off to put things right.

Angelo and Escalus debated the unpermissive new order at the start of act two. He stated plainly that he would willingly submit to the strictures of the law if so required. He paused to order Claudio’s execution before the serious tone of the scene was completely undercut by one of the funniest sequences in the play, which this production picked up and ran with in glorious fashion.

Beginning with Elbow’s comic allusion to his own name, through his malapropisms (benefactors, detest etc.) to the delightfully irreverent anecdote about Elbow’s wife related by the tag team of Pompey and Froth, this sequence provided a welcome interlude.

Pompey and Froth put on a totally unconvincing and hysterically funny act for the inquisitors. Pompey mentioned that Froth’s father had died, upon which the forlorn Froth began ham act his weeping. When Escalus was asked to judge the honesty of Froth’s face, the man exaggeratedly presented himself as harmless and innocent.

Benefactors

Elbow’s frustration boiled over into more malapropisms, at which point Escalus despaired of the whole process and advised Elbow simply to keep an eye on the notorious benefactors before dismissing them with a warning not to appear before him again.

Scene 2.2 began with Angelo rejecting the Provost’s appeal for clemency just before Isabella entered to appeal for the same, accompanied by Lucio.

Angelo sat, then stood, as Isabella became more animated. She shouted at the “tyrant”, but hers was always a very feminine, restrained anger. Angelo looked on without any real trace of interest. Dispassionate and featureless, he bore no trace of any inner turmoil that might have foreshadowed his subsequent outburst of passion.

The turning point in the long exchange, given comic note by Lucio’s words of encouragement, came when Isabella put her palm on Angelo’s chest saying “Go to your bosom”, encouraging him to enquire if it contained any fault similar to Claudio’s. This immediately prompted Angelo’s aside about his sense “breeding” at her words.

For some reason Isabella’s subsequent line containing a hidden bawdy reference to “…fond sickles of the tested gold, or stones…” really stood out.

Angelo requested Isabella visit him again with snappy short sentences that did not disguise his embarrassment. But his soliloquy describing the dilemma caused by his feelings for Isabella was comparatively matter-of-fact.

Angelo was underplayed. Rather than an accident of Ballard’s acting, this could have been a deliberate directorial choice flowing from the clear decision to make the Duke the central character. It was telling that this speech of Angelo’s was followed by more extravagant behaviour by the now disguised Duke.

The Duke entered in a monk’s habit practising his “benedicite” (2.3). He removed his hood and beamed at the audience letting us in on the secret of his disguise, which we had mostly worked out for ourselves already. He recognised the Provost and greeted him by his title, but then immediately cringed when he realised that a visiting friar would not have known him.

The Duke met with Juliet and was uncharacteristically stern with her before announcing that he was going to find Claudio to speak with him as well. He parted with a properly rehearsed and convincing “benedicite”.

Innocence

Angelo prepared to meet Isabella for a second time (2.4). Angelo seemed emotionless in the face of Isabella’s characteristic earnestness. He was more concerned that she might be feigning innocence in not understanding him. If Angelo was a troubled man, then the precise nature and origins of his troubles remained obscure and undeveloped by Ballard’s characterisation.

As Angelo’s true intention became clearer, Isabella lost nothing of her anger nor her forensic intellect. Her “Ignomy in ransom and free pardon are of two houses” showed her to be clear in her insights, despite the stress of the situation.

Isabella’s anger erupted as she told Angelo that she would denounce him. But Angelo’s cool rebuff that no one would believe her was not the calculated response of a devious mastermind.

Claudio was brought up from the cells and chained to one of the small posts at the side of the stage so that the Duke could talk to him disguised as a friar (3.1). Claudio’s resigned simplicity carried over into his similar conversation with his sister Isabella when she visited him, with the Duke listening in.

But the seemingly modest and virtuous attitude that Claudio initially displayed, accepting his death and his sister’s preservation of her virginity soon slipped into him pleading with her to save his life. Isabella launched into a fierce tirade against her brother, at which point the Duke stepped forward to calm them by explaining to Claudio that Angelo had only wanted to test Isabella, and telling Isabella about Mariana and his plan to bring good from bad.

After firing off his list of instructions to Isabella, the Duke retired making a loud exhalation of breath, indicating his relief at narrowly averting calamity.

The brothel reappeared behind the curtain (3.2) and more whipping and kinkiness took place. But this time the constables of the watch turned up and arrested the men.

Elbow brought Pompey forward and the Duke castigated the miscreant. Pompey’s face lit up when he saw Lucio, thinking he would bail him, but Lucio only mocked Pompey. He pulled down on Pompey’s neck brace, which also had S&M touches, joking that his “mettle is the more”.

This reminder of the dog collar nature of Pompey’s restraint caused him to rub himself against Lucio’s leg like a dog. Lucio pushed him off saying “Go to kennel, Pompey, go.”

Disguised

We were then treated to the delicious comedy of Lucio telling the disguised Duke all about the Duke’s peccadilloes, made funnier by the Duke almost let his guard slip at one point. The audience lapped up the braggart’s assumed knowledge of the man he was in fact addressing, and the Duke’s wonderfully restrained defence of himself. The phrase “his use was to put a ducat in her clack-dish” was laden with innuendo.

Lucio’s departure was soon followed by the arrival of Escalus, the Provost with Mistress Overdone under arrest. She tried to assuage Escalaus’ ire by kneeling in front of him and unbuttoning his trousers.

Overdone thought that Lucio had snitched on her, so in return she told Escalus about his dalliance with Kate Keep-down. The Provost keenly took note of the details to pass on to the Duke.

Escalus called on the Provost to send a priest to Claudio to prepare him for death. The Provost pointed at the disguised Duke as a suitable man for the job. Realising that Escalus would most likely recognise his face, the Duke made a great point of turning away from Escalus when speaking to him, even though this sometimes produced a comical result.

Escalus asked him what news there was in the wider world. The Duke’s initial monosyllabic “None” was quickly corrected when he realised that it was an inadequate response, causing him to launch into a series of generalities.

Escalus and the Provost left the Duke alone. He took off his hood and addressed his closing doggerel verse in the scene to the audience. He pointed at us, making us like the angels “on the outward side”. After this the interval came.

A woman held a water jug above her head and slowly poured the contents into a bowl in the form of a living statue. A friar knelt and played the guitar as Mariana pitched gently back and forth on a swing, singing a sad song (4.1).

The Duke was soon joined by Isabella, who began her account of Angelo’s instructions for their assignation. She produced the two keys he had given her using the same sleight of hand technique used by the Duke. This made the audience laugh as it showed a lighter side to Isabella’s character that we had not seen previously, and also hinted that she had come under the Duke’s influence to such an extent that she was now imitating his quirks.

Prompted by this comedy, the audience laughed at Isabella’s mention that Angelo had explained the route to his house twice. An audience fresh back after an interval is often game for a laugh.

Plan

Isabella and Mariana withdrew momentarily to discuss the plan, while the Duke bewailed the fate of greatness, to have “Millions of false eyes” gazing at it, pointing accusingly but affectionately again at the audience.

The Provost opened the grille in the floor to access the prison (4.2) and brought out Pompey to recruit him as a trainee executioner. Abhorson wore a vest that exposed the crude tally marks on his upper arm indicating his dozen or so victims. He was also cross-eyed, which was perhaps a clue as to why he required an assistant.

Abhorson stared disdainfully at Pompey and intoned sonorously that his profession would be discredited by having a bawd among its ranks. His obscure explanation for why his occupation was a “mystery” was spoken slowly and deliberately as if containing clarity and sense.

Claudio was brought out, but Barnadine had refused to appear. The Duke arrived and told the Provost to expect a message regarding Claudio’s pardon. Elbow was the Messenger who brought Angelo’s renewed instructions to proceed with Claudio’s execution.

The Duke instructed the Provost to have Barnadine executed in Claudio’s place, producing a letter with his own ducal seal on it as authority.

Pompey emerged grinning from the trap door (4.3), with an extra-textual “Hello” before telling us how many of his former clients he had found in the prison. He went around pointing at members of the audience, naming them as the various offenders and itemising their offences.

This caused great amusement, particularly when he pointed at a bald man, naming him as “young Drop-heir”, and at a middle-aged woman calling her “wild Half-can”. He also commented (outside the text) about the 400 hundred or so others, meaning the rest of us in the audience.

Abhorson and Pompey called on Barnadine, who popped his head up through a hatch to disdainfully announce that he was sleepy. When he emerged fully, Barnadine was bare-chested with long hair and displayed a faintly roguish, aristocratic bearing that went hand in hand with the disdainful sense of entitlement behind his disregard of the prison regime.

Axe

Barnadine sat on the executioner’s block as the cross-eyed Abhorson raised the large axe ready to strike. Abhorson wavered as he tried to keep the axe in the air, gesturing to Pompey to retrieve the warrant for Barnadine’s execution from his belt. Barnadine rose just before Abhorson let the axe fall onto the block with a thud.

With Barnadine unsuited to execution, the Duke gleefully received the news about the untimely death of Ragozine. The audience laughed at his description of this as “an accident that heaven provides”.

The Duke produced the letters he was to write to Angelo by magic sleight of hand before the Provost returned with Ragozine’s head in bag.

Isabella reacted badly to the Duke’s pretence that Claudio had been executed. She clenched her fists and spat out her four-fold invective, which concluded with her cursing Angelo. Lucio arrived to comfort her and hugged her.

The Duke and Lucio clashed with Lucio once more divulging that he had got a woman pregnant. Insisting that he accompany the friar, Lucio said he would “stick” and each time the Duke took a tentative step backwards, Lucio repeated the word “stick” to indicate that he had latched on.

Angelo and Escalus discussed the Duke’s most recent letter to them arranging a meeting at the city gate (4.4). Angelo’s thoughtful soliloquy, in which he succeeded in convincing himself that Isabella would not speak out against him, was notable for the way the unusual words “unshapes” and “unpregnant” stood out.

The brief scene between the Duke, Friar Peter and Varrius (4.5) was followed swiftly by Isabella and Mariana appearing in the galleries either side of the stage discussing which of them should accuse Angelo (4.6). When Friar Peter returned, the two women appeared on the main stage and he told Isabella to take up her position.

Eagle

The strip curtain was partly bundled together at the ends and lifted up to make way for the Duke. He made a stately entrance through the wide gap in the curtain in his elegant uniform of office accompanied by his men (5.1). The emblem of the Austrian eagle appeared high at the back.

After greeting Escalus and Angelo (and possibly producing a coin from behind someone’s ear), the Duke proceeded onward and Isabella threw herself forward to demand justice. Initially dismissive, the Duke was persuaded to listen and Isabella continued, buoyed up by Lucio’s interventions, which the Duke insisted on silencing. She spat out the word “concupiscible”. The Duke refused to believe her and she was led away to prison.

All this time Angelo looked on with an air of detachment, which was in tune with his phlegmatic character. He managed to crack a smile when Friar Peter informed the Duke that “Friar Lodowick” had sent message that Isabella’s accusations against Angelo were going to be disproved.

Mariana appeared with a black blindfold over her eyes with a crucifix attached to the front. Her riddling statements soon revealed that Angelo was her husband. She unmasked and Angelo admitted having once being betrothed to her. But the Duke continued to act as if he supported him and briefly disappeared. Escalus said he would do his job “thoroughly” which is slight emendation of the text’s “throughly”.

The Duke returned disguised as the friar, while Escalus interrogated Isabella. The Duke once again turned away from Escalus to avoid detection, but soon found himself being accused by Escalus and insulted by Lucio, who held his lapels like a lawyer to accuse the friar of insulting the Duke.

Lucio grabbed hold of the friar and put him across his knee and spanked him on the bottom, culminating in his hood coming off and the Duke appearing in full view. Lucio immediately panicked and got down on his knees begging for forgiveness.

Angelo accepted his guilt, and the Duke arranged for him to marry Mariana. He warmly greeted Isabella with the subterfuge now uncovered. But the returning Angelo was condemned to death despite Mariana’s and Isabella’s pleas.

The Duke asked the Provost to bring in Barnadine, but he also brought in the hooded Claudio closely followed by Juliet and her now newborn baby.

The unhooding of Claudio produced general relief in Isabella and Angelo. It remained only for Kate Keep-down to be ordered to marry Lucio for the loose ends to be all tied-up.

In keeping with the jolly tone of the production, the Duke’s offer of marriage to Isabella was warmly (yet for textual reasons wordlessly) accepted.

The performance ended with a Globe-style jig and great audience applause.

Conclusions

The production was thoroughly enjoyable, despite prizing visual style over dramatic substance.

The overshadowing of Angelo by the Duke meant that the comic aspects of the play were accentuated at the expense of its darker side.

In particular, we were offered no real psychological insights into the character of Angelo, who is usually the gripping and tortured centre of the drama.