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.
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.
I’m pretty familiar with John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, but my knowledge of his other major play The White Devil is much more limited. I was less than enamoured with the RSC’s production of a few years back, but luckily this production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse hits all the right spots.
The convoluted plot begins with the love affair between Brachiano and Vittoria, who are both married to other people. Its pretty hard to follow, but director Annie Ryan does her best with the material and makes it as clear as it probably can be. My favourite characters include Flamineo, Vittoria’s brother, who wins the audience on side with his wry asides.
The costumes are beautiful, giving the production a Victorian Gothic/steampunk flavour. It got me wondering whether the Gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might not have its roots in Jacobean revenge tragedy.
Another striking thing about the production is its complex use of candlelight to create atmosphere and change the mood of the scene. This has always been the case with the Playhouse, but it seems even more apparent here. The cast tackle the complex language well, bringing clarity to a difficult work.
While not up to the standards of The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil is an important Jacobean play, and I can’t imagine it getting a better production than it has got here.
I decided last minute to see this unique play at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe. Comus – A Masque in Honour Of Chastity was written by poet John Milton in 1634, supposedly commissioned to clear the family name of the Earl of Bridgewater after his brother-in-law was executed following a sodomy trial. It follows the story of a Lady lost in the woods, who meets Comus, the God of Revelry, who promises refuge but offers something darker.
The whole concept of a masque is probably alien to most modern audiences, so I appreciated the efforts made by director Lucy Bailey and writer Patrick Barlow, who has added a prologue and epilogue, to put things in context and set the scene for contemporary viewers. The performance spilled over into the crowd, a novel adaptation of the space by designer William Dudley. Performances were strong, including Emma Curtis as the central character Lady Alice. Overall, despite the rather odd subject matter I rather enjoyed this production.
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.
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.
John Wolfson’s play The Inn At Lydda has the subtitle A Meeting of Caesar and Christ, and that’s what his work, performed in the candlelit setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, was all about. The play was inspired by the New Testament apocrypha, something I’d never previously heard of but which I found pretty interesting. The apocrypha are a collection of ‘pseudo-gospels’ written after the third century, and in these, the Emperor Tiberius orders Pontius Pilate to be killed when he realises that Jesus of Nazareth is already dead, robbing him of the chance to be cured of his illness.
Wolfson imagines that Tiberius and Jesus do meet, in the weeks between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Stephen Boxer and Samuel Collings make a strong pairing, and their scenes together are memorable. The run-up to their meeting is even more entertaining, with the wise men making several appearances. The tone is vaguely Python-esque and it was also reminiscent of Elizabethan comedy.
I warmed to this unusual play, not just because of the beautiful venue – which I love – but because of the enjoyable production.