At the weekend I attended a “Read Not Dead” staged reading of the play The Faithful Friends as part of Globe Education’s “Shakespeare & Friendship” season. “Read Not Dead” events are performances of little-known plays from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, performed script-in-hand by a brave cast of actors who only start rehearsing on the morning of the show. This particular performance took place at the Sackler Studios, which are just down the road from the Globe itself – presumably this was to keep us out of the way of the excited visitors attending the Globe’s annual Open Day (apparently there was an inflatable “Elsinore” bouncy castle so I don’t blame them for their excitement!).
The play was published in around 1614 and its author is unknown. I attended a Rarely Played lecture beforehand to find out more about it. The backstory is complex: a young man, Marius, returns to Rome from exile to find his friend Tulius has grown more powerful: he is favoured by the king and has been appointed a general. He has also married, though his wife, the beautiful Philadelpha, is as yet still a virgin. Meanwhile, Marius’ lover – Tulius’ sister – has disappeared, disguised as a boy and acting as page to Tulius, unbeknownst to him. The two friends go off to war and. as it was put to us: “melodrama ensues”.
Professor Grace Ioppolo from the University of Reading gave a fascinating talk emphasising the importance of manuscripts to play research, particularly this play as it is lesser known and only one published edition is known to exist. Undiscovered manuscripts do still turn up, as they have often spent years in the hands of private collections, many of whom do not know the value of what they have. Many known manuscripts are kept at the V&A.
The Professor explained some of the ways in which we can use a manuscript to find out more about it. Original manuscripts, written by the author, were often bound folio to folio, as a writer would not often know how long his work was going to be before beginning. Subsequent copies – scribe manuscripts – would normally be bound folio into folio in the style of a book, as a scribe would know how long their copied work would be. Presentation copies, for instance to give to patrons, would often be bound. Many existing copies of manuscripts originally belonged to the censor – at the time all plays had to go through the censor and he kept copies of them all.
Professor Grace suggested that the Faithful Friends manuscript was not a censor’s copy, but was produced later, as it contains comments and cuts, possibly made because of time constraints. This particular manuscript suffered water damage at some point, and the first few pages are newer, dating from around 1620-40, probably replaced after the damage. There is also an inserted leaf in someone else’s handwriting, containing either a new scene or a copy of an original that was lost. She also suggested that the play might have been written by John Fletcher.
The Read Not Dead performance itself was held across the road. It was long, but not at all dry or dull. Despite being a staged reading, the cast were mostly fluent in their speeches, characterising their roles well. This complex play got me thinking about who actually were the “faithful friends” of the title. There is so much betrayal and double-crossing and the play has a great deal to say about friendship and loyalty. It was also gripping: I found myself genuinely uncertain as to what was going to happen. A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening Sunday afternoon.