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Brighton Fringe 2016

Low Down

Compressing 500 pages into two hours traffic, Ros Barber’s novel adapted by her and director Nicola Haydn begins life in The Warren Studio 2. Jamie Martin stars as Marlowe. Mandolin-player James Fiddes Smith accompanies.


Ros Barber’s novel has been adapted by her and director Nicola Haydn beginning life in The Warren Studio 2. It compresses 500 pages into two hours traffic. Jamie Martin stars as Marlowe and everyone else except the mandolin-player, James Fiddes Smith who accompanies, improvises modern discordances and swoons memorably into Dowland.

At nineteen confronted with Bacon ‘writing’ Shakespeare I wondered why Marlowe wouldn’t make a more attractive candidate. Objections to anti-Stratfordians are beside the point here. I’ll just mention poet, Shakespeare novelist and scholar Robert Nye’s comment to this writer. Golden lads and chimney-sweepers are Warwickshire for dandelions blooming and blowing, as in ‘golden lads and girls all must/as chimney sweepers come to dust’. This Marlowe doesn’t dodge about collecting Warwickshire folk-idioms. With that I blow contention away, revelling in the tenebrous magic of Barber’s poetic fiction. Hostile criticism of her work’s feasibly based on Barber’s securing grants and prizes normally awarded to a tight circle. An upstart crow beautified with their nest feathers? Delicious.

Jamie Martin leaps furiously up the aisle to bestride the stage like the Tamburlaine he’ll soon be, framing the play muttering about Hamlet to a taverner.

Martin bombasts out a blank verse, indeed rhyme with the best of them. His projection’s sometimes over-intense but most of all he speaks verse beautifully even when hollering it. There’s much holler in the first half but there is variety and if the pitch and yaw of his yarn doesn’t always betoken subtlety that comes later.

Barber’s verse, sometimes rough magic, sometimes beautifully effective, lopes across extremely well. No-one has accused her either of cod-Elizabethan or lack of engagement with the language of the time. Here in the drama it’s a particularly flexible instrument, springy as the foil Martin as Marlowe deploys to ferocious effect. Indeed in this play Barber’s verse has measured its length and found its true home.

Marlowe recounts his early life; the first half takes us to his supposed death in a Deptford tavern on May 30th 1593 that ‘mighty reckoning in a little room’. Beyond being recruited for Walsingham’s secret service he falls for his kinsman; their furtively-interlaced desire shapes Marlowe’s life. There are two later rivals. The Earl of Southampton, careful of his reputation and ‘Shakespeare’s’ patron; and a dark-skinned nosey French lady.

Barber’s other characters include a friend Watson whose killing of a murderous braggart lands him and Marlowe languishing in jail where Marlowe’s line-manager Poley visits him telling him to cool his now-beshitten heels. Martin makes a good fisticuff of braggart characters opposed by smooth-talkers. In the first half he throws up curtains, crashes the length of the aisle and harangues the exit, often jumping on a trunk that in the interval needed surgery. Much use is made of the rafters of this temporary space; Martin suspends himself several times evoking torture and hanging.

There’s a solidity of plotting based on known facts of Marlowe’s life in the first half that Martin revels in; it shows. Details of Marlowe’s secret service and well-inferred escapades come across vividly with the zig-zag credibility of a man playing hopscotch on a piranha pool.

The shorter second act introduces Marlowe’s grim bargain with erstwhile friends in the intelligence service, where he’s been disappeared, officially dead after fleeing an atheism charge not even Walsingham can unhook him from. But he pays the price of being dead; someone else must put his name to Marlowe’s new works. A beady country shareholder in a theatre who sizes Marlowe’s cloth up by the yard, pricing him accordingly. Thus Marlowe embarks for his posthumous existence, bumping into fading lovers, a slithery mistress, disowning shady dealers like Thorpe who might soon have him over a gunpowder barrel.

Martin hushes perceptibly; bombast shrinks to everyday hubris; though neither Faustus nor indeed Edward II are alluded to, or Hero and Leander completed by Chapman, but ‘Shakespeare’s’ Venus and Adonis. Martin shaves Marlowe’s voice to descants on fallen majesty, the reflector of others’ betrayal. I missed here the solid plotting and story-telling of the first half, though enjoyed the flickering candlelit vigil: Marlowe, balding and bawling quietly, inured to his diminuendo fate as a dead man knitted into his hammock.

Smith’s mandolin-playing ravishes beyond reproach; there might be more of it, more use made of the candles near his elbow stage left. Lighting too is exemplary.

Nicola Haydn directs Martin keenly; he needs to blend qualities discovered in the second act with the energy of the first, for the first act. And Martin tremendous as he is in some ways can’t cleanly mimic all roles. A two-or-three-hander would answer, counterpoint and energize – re-orchestrating what’s attempted here. In the second act Haydn extracts plot from the novel’s latter stage, all its poetry intact. This act needs however deeper sourcing than perhaps the novel per se affords. Marlowe one feels hasn’t finished with Barber and will keep whispering more to her. She and Haydn might consider raising their game here – where reach thrillingly exceeds grasp – making a compellingly recommendable show an outstanding play.