FringeReview UK 2017
Read Not Dead ground rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts and then assemble on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. This production of The Bashful Lover is directed by Jenny Eastop at the Globe Sackler Studios on December 3rd .
The Bashful Lover is the last known play by Philip Massinger dating from 1636, four year before his death. A kind of tragi-comedy where no named character gets killed, it’s also a profound meditation on the nature of service, of servitude and enslavement, and redemption. It’s an exceptionally satisfying swansong, and easily one of Massinger’s finer plays.
It’s also the last in the current series, here briefly in the Sackler, a less resonant acoustic and smaller space: it was packed, a healthy reflection on rising attendance. The RNDs return in May back at the Wanamaker with a new sequence, though other Massingers may be staged.
As Read Not Dead suggests, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are reanimated; in the Massinger series it’s also a case of rebutting T. S. Eliot’s dampening 1920 essay. This play was at least popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – up to 1798. Like The Great Duke of Florence it deserves rediscovery too. It resembles that play in a final appellant scene from a young woman to a Duke. Though a repetition, the paly demands it and th language is different: more restrained, less studied, more the language of equals. It’s summarized by the hero’s: ‘Be wise; soar not too high to fall; but stoop to rise.’
As in The Elder Brother also directed by Jenny Eastop Peter Wicks’ takes the eponymous lead. He has form in this Massinger series and is one of the most thoughtful of lead actors, here well answered by Beth Eyre’s grave yet sometimes joyous Matilda. There’s infectious chemistry between them, something borne out in just a few hours’ rehearsal.
Jeremy Booth’s Duke of Mantua, ruled by a Gonzaga is threatened by the ruler of Florence Duke Lorenzo – as in The Great Duke of Florence one of the Medicis, but given less gravity here. James Wallace girt in leather with the red sash all Florentines wear here in battle, cuts a suitable braggadocio figure, clamorous and amused, and later reflective too, indeed noble. In contrast to Booth’s active, anxious Gonzago, there’s a touch of comedy in Wallace’s role, since the character’s faintly preposterous; Wallace rescues him from trumpery but there’s an enormous glint of fun in his swashbuckling. ‘Ambition, in a private man is a vice,/Is in a prince the virtue.’ Not entirely reassuring advice. It doesn’t do anyone here much public good, with Lorenzo’s public invasions. But how private is Hortensio, the apparent ‘private’ man?
The opening scene discovers a love-sick gentleman calling himself Hortensio: Wicks’ Galeazzo. He dogs the Mantuan court for a glimpse of Eyre’s princess Matilda. The eponymous ‘bashful lover’ Wicks carefully gradates his angst and ambition, never overstating the case, bringing a warmth as well as signal intelligence to this role, as he did in The Elder Brother, a similarly melancholic lover.
Hortensio’s bribed Ascanio (here quiet, patient Charlie Ryall), the princess’s page, to inform him of her movements —Ascanio’s a facilitator, recognizing Hortensio’s infatuation is honourable. Matilda courteously meets Hortensio, allowing his distant attentions, an afterglow of the old medieval fin’amour. There’s delicacy and dignity in their exchanges, and a rare, rapid empathy of style where their matching of manners suggests a deeper affinity, gradually amplified.
But the Mantuan court’s threatened. Gonzago receives the Florentine ambassador, Alonzo (seemingly upright Robbie Capaldi), but rejects Lorenzo’s demands for the city’s surrender and Matilda’s hand in marriage. (When Ascanio sees Alonzo at court, he puzzlingly faints and is lugged out.)
Action swiftly moves to the Mantuan countryside. After upbraiding Sam Jenkins-Shaw’s stentorian heldentenor role of Uberti, Prince of Parma, who thinks he’s the only Mantuan conceivably able to defend Matilda, as well as Gonzaga’s cousin Farneze (Joe Eyre) Hortensio has joined the Mantuan forces to prove his worth to Matilda.
Jenkins-Shaw is splendid, virtually off the page, all Alpha-male and cropped heroics. Eyre’s light tricky demeanour works ideally as an equivocating courtier, able but not shining in wars, not quite the prince though aware of dignity.
Ryall’s Ascanio demands the right to accompany Wicks’ hero but hardly proves an ideal cornet. When the two armies engage, the Florentine forces are victorious. Not before Hortensio rescues the unseated Uberti re-horsing him, and doing like service for Farneze. They both stand indebted and don’t forget it. Further, Hortensio rescues Gonzago.
These layers of service he undertakes to father and daughter are echoed in his rivals’ debt to him, and indeed the disposition of power in itself a kind of service in even the greatest dukes. This as Matthew Williamson points out in his notes, stands in perilous contrast to attitudes towards absolute hierarchies and service in Britain in 1636. Two years into the reviled Ship’s Tax, the country was set to slough this mind-set forever.
In the process, Capaldi’s Florentine officer Alonzo runs a second battle with his friend Pisano (a Tuscan lord, sparky Clark Alexander) and both gets seriously wounded. Nothing noble: they’re fighting over Matilda, and this time Hortensio comes across the second of them and wounds him: this is Ascanio, who having seduced a woman like Measure for Measure’s Mariana, has abandoned her, though it’s preying on him. You’d think them dead but this is somehow a comedy and like the A Team no-one however afflicted actually dies.
Enter Oliver Lavery who’s briefly Hortensio/Galeazzo’s servant Julio but here a star turn as the rapacious servant to Octavio. He scavenges from what he takes as dead men, though honourably returns his booty Indeed he returns some of it PDQ when he notes one of them owns even a breath of life, which terrifies him. the movement from apparent death to comic scavenging – Gothrio’s gluttony is tabulated in numerous filchings and whinings – suggests these two aren’t going to die under a welter of comedy. Lavery is outstandingly good, very funny, with a performance-ready rationale. And there’s a filched line too. Straight out of R&J’s Nurse, Gothrio’s comparison ‘a dishcloth to him’: it’s very near that dishclout line indeed.
Thus the pair fall into the care of Andy Secombe’s Octavio, a former Mantuan general and courtier who lives exiled in the country after losing the Duke’s favour – a sketchily conveyed misunderstanding straight out of Cymbeline. It turns out that the page Ascanio is Octavio’s daughter Maria in disguise; yes, the very woman previously seduced and abandoned by Alonzo.
Octavio nurses Alonzo back to health; after his near death, Alonzo is reflective, and vocally repentant over his treatment of Maria. Only when he’s made his confession to the seeming Father and indeed father indeed does Maria’s identity get revealed, as she’s overheard all. Exiled Octavio like Prospero masquerades as a monk to help Alonzo ‘cure the ulcers of his mind,’ to overcome his PTSD, depression and mental distress — a feature typical of Massinger’s dramaturgy if less seen in this RND series of seven plays.
The dignified, patient Secombe, Ryall and Capaldi make much of this, and Capaldi’s capacity to morph from bullish knight to injured, repentant man, already tortured with guilt is convincing and winning. There’s three scenes between the three, a reconcilement wrought hard over these scenes: nothing quick and Fletcherian but like Octavio patient and psychologically charged.
There’s a comical doctor’s sub-plot too involving Lydia Bakelmun who exhibits very palpable terror once she’s been assaulted by Wallace’s Duke. Oiling herself round his supposed marriage the neatly oleaginous Bakelmun fetches anti-wrinkling ointments and indeed magic potions, designed to restore a smooth brow and doubtless Venusian sighs over his mistress’ eyebrow. Her reward is shocking: a phial-smashing face smashing body-kicking ambush by Wallace’s Duke. Quackery, as opposed to true medicine, seems to excite Massinger to outrage.
It’s wholly superfluous dramatically, effects a contrast though and gives a larger second spot to Bakelmun, who’s only briefly shone as lady-in-waiting Beatrice. Karen Whyte as truculent captain Martino on the make in the Florentine court gets a meatier second shot after her lady-in-waiting, making a rather good spoils-chaser. Timothy Blore etches in a couple of roles, Manfroy of Mantua, a wobbling and worried young man, being chief among them.
Only when he’s made his confession to the seeming Father and indeed father indeed does her identity get revealed, as she’s also overheard all. The dignified, patient Secombe, Ryall and Capaldi make much of this, and Capadli’s capacity to morph from bullish knight to injured, repentant man, already tortured with guilt is convincing and winning. There’s three scenes between the three, a reconcilement wrought hard over these scenes: nothing quick and Fletcherian but like Octavio patient and psychologically charged.
Hortensio, having fought bravely, re-horsing Uberti and rescuing Gonzaga from capture, comes across an attempt on Matilda who’s fled the court, is disguised and nearly raped. He finally wins her love before he knows who she is: it’s not distant any more. Trying to secure their freedom he’s captured by Lorenzo’s forces — as is Matilda; the two are re-united in captivity.
Duke Lorenzo, talking among his officers, admits his prior demand for Matilda’s hand was a dodgy land-grabbing feint of ambition. He’s no real interest in her, or in dynastic marriage. It’d put him off his seven league stride of conquest. Just like his eponymous counterpart in The Great Duke of Florence Lorenzo changes his mind when he actually meets her. Wallace’s double-take and switchback excites laughter.
In a fine appellant scene though, Eyre kneeling and thus stooping to conquer prejudice, recalls the similar scene from The Great Duke of Florence. Here it’s briefer, less charged with scholarly eloquence, more grounded in court justice and implied equality of birth. Massinger pushes the emotive arc just a little further along. Matilda’s great scene comes shortly after with the man she loves. Matilda’s beauty and noble character work a change on Lorenzo: he renounces military conquest and returns Mantua to Gonzaga’s control. A but late: acres of corpses are casually related.
In his new-found magnanimity, Lorenzo allows Matilda a free choice among her three suitors — himself, retiring Hortensio, and the striding Uberti; but in eavesdropping on a conversation between Hortensio and Matilda, where Hortensio reluctantly urges her to marry the Duke despite their obvious sexual chemistry, Lorenzo and Gonzaga come to recognize Hortensio as her worthiest choice.
Uberti’s less willing to concede, debts rather subordinated to imagined rank—until it’s revealed that Hortensio is actually Galeazzo, on the happy death of his brother (they weren’t close!) a prince of Milan and its new ruler. Really. The letter containing the news comes as suddenly as any abrupt retirement and new brother out of As You Like It. Alonzo, recovered from his wounds, marries Maria, and Octavio is restored to favour. Gothrio gets the old cave house and a kind of beer-linked pension.
What this production enjoys in particular is a fizzing energy: nothing sags in Eastop’s expert cut and parry. The actors’ cracking pace reflects the martial tang of the play, the picaresque alarums and excursions of war snappily hailed over the production. Finally it’s the mutual understatement and mobile intelligence – etched on their faces – of Wicks and Eyre that make this already crackling reading treasurable.