Read Not Dead: Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More is famous primarily because of the well-known speech in defence of refugees, set during the May Day Riots of 1517, written in Shakespeare’s hand; this play is actually the work of several writers: Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and, of course, Shakespeare. I’d love to see a full production of it, but in the meantime this Read Not Dead staged reading in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was an excellent showcase. At times it reminded me of A Man For All Seasons, but it was interesting.

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Read Not Dead: Eastward Ho!

On Sunday I attended another ‘Read Not Dead’ event at Shakespeare’s Globe: Eastward Ho! was performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The current season is all about censorship, and this play was censored in 1605 for offending James I with a number of anti-Scottish references. Two of its three authors, George Chapman, Ben Jonson and John Marston, ended up in jail.

The play is a bawdy city comedy centred on Master Touchstone, his daughters Gertrude and Mildred, and his apprentices. It’s one of the best ‘Read Not Dead’ productions I’ve seen, very lively and funny, and I would love to see a full production.

The Captive Queen

I always look forward to seeing plays in the Globe’s beautiful Jacobean playhouse, and I was intrigued also to see this modern take on John Dryden’s 1675 Restoration drama Aureng-zebe. Renamed The Captive Queen, Barrie Rutter’s production, a co-production with Northern Broadsides, sets the action of Dryden’s Mughal Indian epic in a northern English mill. The story follows an emperor (Barrie Rutter) who falls in love with Indamora (Neerja Naik), the captive queen of the title, causing conflict with his two sons, the heroic Aurangzeb¬†(Naeem Hayat) and the younger Morat (Dharmesh Patel).

At first shocked to see the gorgeous wood of the Playhouse covered in imitation grey brick, I soon grew used to the setting. In some ways the updated setting really worked: characters clocking in and out at the beginning and end of the play, swathes of coloured fabric hung or dropped from the gallery to demonstrate which factions were in power at any one time. In other respects, though, the setting didn’t quite gel for me, and I wonder if more could have been made of it. I enjoyed the atmospheric and beautifully-performed music from composer Niraj Chag, too, but I wasn’t sure about the musicians taking up a third of the stage during most of the production.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the production. Dryden’s language of rhyming couplets is easier to follow outright than Shakespeare’s. Though it has the disadvantage of potentially sounding unnatural, I thought the cast did a great job. There were some great comedic scenes, particularly those involving the Emperor and his wife Nourmahal (Angela Griffin), as well as moments of pathos, such as the scenes involving Arimant (Silas Carson), the servant whose devotion to Indamora is destined to be unrequited. The plot could be hard to follow at times, but the swathes of fabric did help!

Overall, I found The Captive Queen to be an accessible and amusing version of Dryden’s work, and one which I would definitely recommend.

Summer’s Last Will and Testament

Every year, the boys from King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon come down to London and perform an Elizabethan or Jacobean play in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This year it was the turn of Summer’s Last Will and Testament, a curiosity by Thomas Nashe, published in 1600 and believed to have been first performed by boy actors in 1592.

The story is more or less straightforward – Summer is coming to a close and is gathering his fruits around him before departing in favour of the long-waiting Autumn and Winter. One by one the representatives of Summer ascend to the stage to share their proceeds, before Summer passes away, distraught at their failure to secure his legacy. Described as a comedy, it is melancholic in tone towards the end.

The whole thing is bookended and commented upon by Will Summer, or Summers (originally a jester at the court of Henry VIII), played brilliantly by one of the older boys, whose interjections offer a link between our world and the world of the play. I really hope he pursues an acting career because he really is brilliant. There are great performances too by Summer, Autumn and Winter, and the supporting cast of younger boys are superb, playing sprites, dancers and even, in one memorable scene, a pack of dogs.

The play is certainly very strange but Edward’s Boys have done a brilliant job with it, and I’d definitely be up for seeing what they have to offer next year.

Read Not Dead: Sappho and Phao

Sappho and Phao was the last Read Not Dead production in the ‘Before Shakespeare’ series at the Globe. It’s a comedy by John Lyly, dating from around 1584, and features the goddess Venus who endows a young ferryman with great beauty, is cross when he and the queen of Sicily, Sappho, fall in love with one another, and plots to ruin their attachment. It’s an amusing tale, cleverly staged by the team at the Globe who perform it with flair and a light touch. A fitting finale to the short season.

Read Not Dead: Mucedorus

Mucedorus¬†is the third in the Globe’s miniseries of Read Not Dead readings, ‘Before Shakespeare’. It’s one of the most commonly reprinted early modern plays, dating from around 1590. It has been attributed on occasion to Shakespeare, although it is now generally accepted that it is not by him.

The play tells of Mucedorus, Prince of Valencia, who disguises himself as a shepherd in order to sneak unseen into neighbouring Aragon to see the princess Amandine. Romantic, comic and tragic scenes ensue until the conflict is resolved. I thought this was one of the funniest early modern plays I’ve seen, and I was especially amused by the bear scenes!

Read Not Dead: Fedele and Fortunio

Fedele and Fortunio is the second in the Globe’s miniseries of Read Not Dead readings, ‘Before Shakespeare’. It is believed to be the fourth surviving play from the London playhouses, and the fifth to be printed, in 1584. Written by Anthony Munday, it’s the first play to resemble a recognisable Shakespearean-style comedy, with complex plots, cross-dressing and mistaken identity.

This was one of the funniest plays I’ve seen as part of the Read Not Dead series. It was highly amusing and very well acted by all involved.