Terrors of the Night

I went to see a Read Not Dead performance at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with a difference – a prose reading of Thomas Nashe’s The Terrors of the Night (1594). Marking the author’s 450th anniversary, the Thomas Nashe Project is a five-year research programme funded by the AHRC, and this performance was related to that project. The text was edited by Dr Kate De Rycker, directed by Jason Morell, and performed by Peter Hamilton Dyer and Caroline Faber. It was accompanied by music performed by Ansuman Biswas.

The Terrors of the Night is a meditation on the meaning of dreams. Are dreams the work of supernatural forces, or are they influenced by the individual’s fears? It’s a fascinating exploration of the conflict between superstition and scepticism, and it was powerfully performed by the two actors in an atmospheric setting.

Read Not Dead: Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune

Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune is the first in a miniseries of four plays performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as part of Read Not Dead, known as ‘Before Shakespeare’. It is a very rare and interesting play: first performed by the Earl of Derby’s Men at court in 1582, it is one of only two plays that survive from the first fifteen years of commercial theatre.

The play itself sees the goddesses Venus and Fortune in a debate over who has the most agency in human affairs. They get involved in a complex situation but eventually everything is sorted out. Like all Read Not Dead performances, it was hugely enjoyable, performed well by a dedicated cast.

Read Not Dead: The Coxcomb

Every year Shakespeare’s Globe puts on a programme of play readings, known as Read Not Dead; thankfully, the new regime hasn’t put paid to them and they are still an important part of the schedule. I normally try to get to one or two a year, and on Sunday I went along to The Coxcomb, an early work by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. The play is based on an episode on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Since 2016 also marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Spanish author, it’s no wonder it was chosen for performance this year.

The plot of The Coxcomb is convoluted, concerning a man who falls in love with his friend’s wife and is surprised to find that his friend appears quite happy to let him indulge his lust. There is also a subplot involving a runaway couple. It’s not always easy to follow, but it leads to several amusing moments.

The plays are always given out to the actors on the morning of the day they are due to take place; they then spend the day rehearsing them before presenting them to the audience in the afternoon. Apart from the scripts in hand and the odd missed cue, you’d hardly notice, a testament to the skill and commitment of the actors involved. The Coxcomb was no different, with actors giving rounded performances. It was an interesting piece, and well worth the watch.

Read Not Dead: A Pleasant Conceited Historie, Called The Taming of a Shrew

I chose to attend the Read Not Dead performance of A Pleasant Conceited Historie, Called The Taming of a Shrew out of curiosity more than anything. It’s an alternative version of the more famous The Taming of the Shrew, but the exact relationship between the two plays is shrouded in mystery. Shakespeare may have written A Shrew, or he may not; The Shrew may be the later play, or it may be the earlier. Either way, it’s certain that both plays have near-identical plots and other considerable similarities. One thing I found particularly interesting is that the framing plot device involving Sly was invoked at both the beginning and end of the play; I did prefer this to The Shrew, in which the plot device is used at the beginning but forgotten at the end. However, the subplot here, in which Kate’s two sisters (unlike the one sister she has in The Shrew) seek to marry, is more concerned with class and comedy than with deception. It was fascinating to see this version on stage: Shrew is a problematic play anyway, but I found this experience illuminating.

Read Not Dead: Pandosto: The Triumph of Time

As part of the Read Not Dead season at the Globe, there was a performance of Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, the work that inspired Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The event was a bit different from usual, as Pandosto is not in fact a play, but a prose romance, written by Robert Greene and first published in 1588.

Despite this, the work was intelligently and entertainingly performed by the talented cast, who as usual performed script-in-hand and only had one day to rehearse. It was interesting to note the differences between Greene’s work and Shakespeare’s play: for example, the original work has Pandosto (Leontes) as the King of Bohemia, while his best friend is the King of Sicilia. In addition, when the former’s daughter Fawnia (Perdita) returns to her father’s kingdom with Dorastus (Florizel), the king falls in love with her, not realising that she is his daughter. He later kills himself, full of remorse for all the trouble he has caused: there is no resurrection of his wife here, and no redemption.

I will be interested to see The Winter’s Tale again, knowing of the original source for the play, and thinking about Shakespeare’s changes and what they might mean. A really enjoyable and thought-provoking afternoon.

Read Not Dead: The Injur’d Princess, or The Fatal Wager

I attended a Red Not Dead performance at the Globe’s Sackler Studios, a reading of Thomas d’Urfey’s The Injur’d Princess or The Fatal Wager. The play, first published in 1682, is an updated version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, and I was interested to see how it differed from the Bard’s play. Urfey attempted to streamline the plot of Cymbeline, focusing on the character of Eugenia and her tragedy. Unfortunately, it did not enjoy great success at the time because the King’s Company, which first performed it, was failing, and the merger with the Duke’s Company soon afterwards lessened the need for new plays. However, it was revived in the eighteenth century, performed as a comedy of errors under the title The Fatal Wager.

I’m always impressed with the cast at these events as they only have one day to study the play and their parts. In particular, Oliver Bennett and Pearl Chanda as Ursaces and Eugenia, the chief couple, were excellent, and James Askill was also very good as the Queen’s son Cloten. My favourite was Martin Hodgson’s Jachimo: he managed to inject a great deal of humour into his role.

Directed by James Wallace, this was a really fun production of a lesser-known Restoration drama and I’m glad I made the effort to see it.

Read Not Dead: The Faithful Friends

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.