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.

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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.

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.

The White Devil

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.