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 directed by Jason Morell. Massinger The Great Duke of Florence was performed at Wanamaker Theatre on November 12th. After that Jenny Eastop directs The Bashful Lover at the Globe Sackler Studios on December 3rd .
Quite why Massinger’s 1627 The Great Duke of Florence isn’t in the repertory is almost a complete mystery. Lack of risk-taking with a dramatist well-known but never mounted, perhaps – and rather damned by T. S. Eliot. Massinger’s best work at least cries out for a real production, his worth ringingly endorsed on the stage. Happily, if fleetingly, it got it here. This is one of the very best Read Not Dead performances I’ve seen.
As Read Not Dead suggests, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are dedicated to dragging plays out of a quattrocento sleep; sometimes it’s like cutting ancient paper to reveal a text never seen. This one hasn’t been seen on stage since at least the 1630s. In this production – and it really is that, more than a staged reading – we see exactly what it would look like, sans buskins (no, there’s a pair on display).
It’s another play too where the reviled court favourite the Duke of Buckingham’s portrayed fictively. Here all ends happier for his alter ego Sanazarro than it did in reality one year after this work was performed – unusually for Massinger – by Queen Henrietta’s Men, a new company.
Directed by Jason Morell with a mercurial brilliance grounded in scholarship, The Great Duke of Florence is spellbinding from the actors’ handling of language and reactions to each other, their attunement and rationale all focused on the quality of language, plot, interchange, the kind of thing a longer acquaintance would normally bring. It helps that the actors are so uniformly fine.
The Great Duke of Florence features Massinger’s heightened language wherever sensibility’s most acute, which circles courtly love. The heroine Lidia enjoys the finest speeches, but this and other fine passages arise from the intense, wondrously deft plotting that Massinger’s also famous for with a complex mildly flawed disposer of power in The Great Duke of Florence himself, Cozimo, Justin Avoth’s magisterial Medici.
The broad rather than scabrous comedy persuades us this mightn’t end badly, courtesy nephew Giovanni’s servant-zany Calandrino, given in one of Ryan Early’s characteristically skirling gusts. Pure harlequin, he vocalises a hectic of wild laughter and comically-learned by-rote courtesy (in paying compliments to the worldly Fiorinda later). Calandrino recruits three male house servants (Tama Phethean, David Palmstrom, Adam Sabatti) in beautifully-blocked set-pieces, culminating in a knock-head spoon dance and drunk-dance caper.
This features Charlotte Moore’s second servant role Petronella (as we’re made uneasily aware late on, servicing master and zany) in a memorable drunk scene. This features more as diversion than subplot: its dramatic justification’s in that same drunk and deception scene. Everything here, despite this harlequin patchwork, is linear: that doesn’t preclude a parallel unravelling of two love-plots, with Cozimo desposing all.
So by this time, you’ll forget any anchoring with the Medicis. Cozimo’s nephew and heir Giovanni has spent three years at the country house of tutor Carolo Charomonte pursuing academic subjects as well as a prince’s curriculum — music, horsemanship, swordsmanship and swallowing (by his bearing) more doses of Castigilione’s Book of the Courtier than Machiavelli’s The Prince: for a real Medici, this would be singular indeed.
The sterling John Hopkins makes a still youthfully energetic tutor (no reason for him to be old, either, being early widowed). Hopkins enjoys a gift of varying his delivery – and body language – with different attack, registering each with resonant vocal distinction down to sotto voces when pleading causes and courageous sallies under sentence of death both deferent and defiant. Patrick Walshe McBride, another regular here, points up Giovanni with the pink of appeal, indeed innocence slightly warped, to make us believe him. Like others, he feels along the line of his courtesy; but brings an ardent bafflement, an honour vulnerable to just one inevitable thing.
So chemistry with one actor in particular is crucial. That’s because Giovanni’s also become dangerously close to Charomonte’s only child Lidia. She’s of course far below him in birth and says so. Indeed Lidia’s a terrible paragon —beautiful, intelligent, chaste, modest. Thankfully her superb speeches make you root for her. Dorothea Myer-Bennett, no stranger to RND impresses here as much as she did in the Orange Tree’s recent Marivaux The Lottery of Love. She conveys Lidia’s outbursts with a tremulous restraint that’s breathtaking.
For now though Giovanni’s recalled to the Duke’s court; he takes a sad leave of Charomonte and Lidia and travels to Florence with Calandrino. The court is abuzz with the praises of Cozimo’s favourite Count Sanazarro, who’s just won a naval victory over the Ottoman fleet, latest of Sanazarro’s many triumphs and distinctions. Charomonte and Liza Sadovy’s Contarina, the Duke’s secretary, discuss his virtues.
The original Contarino has been rightly feminized to offset a male-heavy cast (nine men to now four women). The only accidents in this production occur when Contarina accidentally changes sex in the telling, when referenced. Sadovy’s more luxury casting, known particularly on Radio 4’s Classic Serials for her vocal distinction, and she makes something of real gravitas here, especially when called upon to disavow her previous good reports of Lidia so as not to contradict her superiors. Act I’s full of praises of those offstage, of Giovanni who memorably owns nothing of ‘the rust of action’, of Lidia, and as for Sanazarro Charomonte declares:
But in our Sanazarro ’tis not so,
He being pure and tried gold; and any stamp
Of grace, to make him current to the world,
The duke is pleased to give him, will add honour
To the great bestower; for he, though allow’d
Companion to his master, still preserves
His majesty in full lustre.
Sanazarro is fancied rotten by Cozimo’s ward Fiorinda, who when she reaches her maturity will be duchess of Urbino. Fiorinda goes so far as to give Sanazarro a diamond ring as a token of her regard. It’s one of Massinger’s pointers. Women at court are freer to make sexual choices, indeed woo for themselves, something Massinger explores elsewhere. Fiorinda first appears giddy, reassuring herself that Sanazarro isn’t responding as he might. ‘No matter; He’s blinded with too much light.’ Calaminta her maid pertly puts it:
This does amaze me, madam,
That he, a soldier, one that drinks rich wines,
Feeds high, and promises as much as Venus
Could wish to find from Mars, should in his manners
Be so averse to women.
He isn’t, fixed as he later is on Lidia. This plot-point so clearly not followed up is for a contemporary audience aimed straight at Buckingham. Ralph Davis makes us rather pity than condemn him, a lively, only slightly Machiavel-Florentine who after all does weight his conscience and his promotions, but with love everything’s in the hazard. Davis’ active appealing Sanazarro is an active foil to Walshe McBride’s rather more ruminant and innocent Giovanni. They make a fine bromance. And in a moral sense Sanazarro’s so much warmer than his original, if not quite worthy the lusty duchess he’s offered.
We discover there’s pleasant badinage rather than rivalry between Fiorinda and Giovanni, who agree to speed each others’ suits. When Giovanni arrives, he asks Fiorinda to seek the Duke’s permission to bring Lidia to court as another lady in waiting. It’s a touching late-teenage friendship, Zoe Boyle’s sexy and fashion-conscious Fiorinda showing herself less brittle than her first snappy proclamations to Charlotte Moore in her other guise as Calaminta. Both Boyle and Moore exude court worldliness and infectious fun, especially when dealing with the foot-kissing Calandrino.
Other courtiers praise Lidia to the Duke; so Cozimo suspects a sizzle between Giovanni and Lidia. It’s not to his liking; the hint is that Cozimo may be planning a dynastic marriage between Giovanni and Fiorinda. Cozimo sends Sanazarro to Charomonte’s country house to evaluate the young woman who may complicate his plans. He’s insistent and commands secrecy. Sanazarro meets Lidia—and instantly falls in love with her.
This creates all the cats’ cradles. Sanazarro suspects Cozimo’s curious about Lidia because the Duke’s thinking of marrying Lidia himself. Back in Florence, Sanazarro shares his fears with Giovanni; neither welcomes the prospect of Cozimo marrying Lidia—and together they decide to mislead the Duke and dispraise Lidia to Cozimo. Giovanni’s more hesitant, anguished, even, but falls in with Sanazarro.
No sooner are they done running her down than Fiorinda seeks out the Duke to fulfil her promise to Giovanni: she solicits permission to bring Lidia to the court. Naturally she repeats all Giovanni’s lush praise of her. Cozimo’s irate at the young men’s patent attempt at manipulation but inwardly and dangerously. It’s the first time we see the tyranny brooked by a generosity worn suddenly thin. Justin Avoth is excellent at conveying a Leontes-like distracted civility. He decides to meet Lidia in person. End of the first half.
So Cozimo travels to Charomonte’s house with his courtiers, including Giovanni and Sanazarro; the increasingly desperate young men try to pass off Charlotte Moore’s drunken serving woman Petronella as Lidia. She does a turn with her beau Calendrino, swigging back wine bottles and crunching crisps to ducal distraction. Moore and Early, helped by the serving trio crate a raucous prentice-boys’ set-piece with Essex girl attitude. It’s beautifully blocked and very funny. Moore collapses and warbles drunken words as she’s dragged off stage. The Duke’s temporarily fooled… only to become suspicious again after conversing with Charomonte whom he claps in irons to dignified remonstrance – Hopkins registering the pressure of a dignified inferior’s wounded innocence.
Cozimo meets Lidia himself, and well… Instead of an Essex girl:
My knees shall first be rooted in this earth,
And Myrrha-like, I’ll grow up to a tree,
Dropping perpetual tears of sorrow, which
Hardn’d by the rough wind, and turn’d to amber,
Unfortunate virgins like myself shall wear;
Before I’ll make petition to your greatness,
But with such reverence, my hands held up thus,
As I would do to heaven. You princes are
As gods on earth to us, and to be sued to
With such humility, as his deputies
May challenge from their vassals.
It’s Cozimo who’s rooted by such an eloquent apparition. Wroth with the hoodwinking his heir and his favourite have tried to put over on him he has them quickly arrested and locked away in Charomonte’s custody. Cozimo instantly wants Lidia for himself, just as Sanazarro pretended to Giovanni. Now it’s become truth.
Sanazarro, shocked at his sudden fall, works a loose pane of glass from a window and inscribes a plea for Fiorinda’s help on it, using the diamond ring she gave him; he manages to drop the glass message so that she finds it. You wonder if this is Pyrex, but here Davis manages the feat neatly from the gallery. Throughout, Davis conveys an uneasy subterfuge, first about Lidia, whom he’s trying to snaffle off both Giovanni and now Cozimo indeed.
But Davis edges to sympathy, particularly when confronted by Fiorinda who enjoys a delicious scene with Cozimo, who challenges her to forgive Sanazarro for falling for Lidia, which she knew nothing of. She weighs up then firmly claims Sanazarro as her own and will ‘impose some debts of satisfaction’. She continues less suggestively: ‘I will bid you to/Make good your promise.. My person is my fortune… use me/Not as a princess, but instruct me in/The duties of an humble wife.’ Clearly Massinger fears city madams might take away the notion of still-imperious duchesses. It’s what Hollywood tried with liberated 1940s women in the early Fifties, when not killing them off. But do we quite believe Fiorinda? Boyle makes her touchingly credible, though tipping a latent wink of things to come.
In the closing scene’s climactic confrontation, the young men are prettily contrite and the young women plead for the Duke’s forgiveness. This is electrifying, as the whole court – as in the prologue – speak in unison or as a broken consort, a beautifully realised vision of suppliants and power disposal. Fiorinda has her man, but will Cozimo release his right to wed Lidia?
Cozimo’s reminded of his private vow to live in single widowerhood after the death of his beloved duchess. He forgives the young men and blesses the marriages – not only Giovanni with Lidia and Sanazarro with Fiorinda, but Caladrino to Petronella who promise to beget many clowns for the court, others being worn thin with use. Pierre Moullier, in a show of drums throughout and confetti, proves an active spiritual son of such antics.
This is one of the very finest RNDs and with the consummate cast and minimal props, Morell makes more than an embryo production of this extraordinarily fine play. It’s like a brilliant, vividly realised sketch of something that could run.