FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by Jason Morell with Peter Hamilton Dyer and Caroline Faber this two-hander staged reading of Nashe’s 1594 The Terrors of the Night graces the Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse in a culmination of a whole day focusing on Nashe. Ansuman Biswas’ music deploys spooky arrangements. Read Not Dead rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. This first of four pre-Shakesperean plays from the 1580s. Before Shakespeare is an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project.
This is followed by Fidele et Fortunio on 18 June, Mucedorus on 16 July, and John Lyly’s Sapho and Phao on 27 August in conjunction with the Before Shakespeare conference taking place from 25 – 26 August.
With candelight in May daylight, but shutters at seven, you know something unusual is up. Especially when the candelabras dip and rise throughout. Jason Morell directs this two-hander staged reading of Nashe’s 1594 The Terrors of the Night at the Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse. It’s part of the Before Shakespeare series, an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project.
Read Not Dead rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. The difference here lies in more elaborate staging, and later start. If you’re an RND fan, you’ll be just a bit surprised.
Morell was last here as director in Massinger’s The Duke of Milan in February and as Cardinal in Webster’s The White Devil just before. Peter Hamilton Dyer and Caroline Faber (also last seen in The Duke of Milan) provide the verbal shakes with real shudders. Ansuman Biswas’ music more then underlines this in his spooky arrangements, bells, gongs, percussion: chimes at midnight. It truly adds a spectral presence.
It’s a culmination of the Globe’s whole day devoted to symposia and this performance on Nashe’s 450th anniversary. The Thomas Nashe Project co-ordinated by Professors Jennifer Richards and Andrew Hadfield aims to create the first new edition of his works in over a century, by 2022. That might sound pretty dry till you get to Nashe’s discursive elaborate suddenly cutaway prose, sidestepping bubbles from the ground and the enticement of naked witches who express infinite sadness in not being taken up, as well as the most expensive recitation of luxuries – jaspers to ambergris – before Antony and Cleopatra.
Nashe 1567-1601 was the most brilliant pamphleteer and the most important writer in early 1590s England, and later. That is, he wrote prose, erotic and dangerous religious poetry and collaborated we now surmise with Shakespeare in Henry VI that shaped other imaginations. Nashe’s influence can be felt in Shakespeare with lifts from Nashe in everything from the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet to the bubbles of the earth in Macbeth.
We’re treated to an introduction by Dr Kate De Rycker, who collaborates here with Morell and sets Nashe’s story up to 1593, the February when resting near Ely he heard of his friend’s father taken with strange experiences, fighting lucidly then dying as it were in a rave. De Rycker reveals how Freud had wanted a translation of this text for his own Interpretation of Dreams, though his foremost British disciple Ernest Jones had indeed employed it.
Something odd happened next – one of those religious fits dividing Nashe’s time from ours, or so we’d think. Nashe then put his bubbling potboiler aside to write Christs Teares over Jerusalem by July 1593 which dangerous religious opinions put him in Newgate till Sir George Carey his patron fished him out. He then set to again, and as Dr Rycker suggests, prison nights left their mark. He swiftly wrote the rest of The Terrors by October.
The first part of the piece De Rycker excerpts is first-written though Nashe shuffled it giving this account of the man’s temptations first, before the terror and disquisition proper. It’s in three classic parts, the most order imposed on Nashe’s slippery form.
The narrative then matures from its concrete early account – something Hamilton Dyer vigorously enlivens with Faber’s springy foil, both reveling in its comparative straightforwardness. The man tormented by lascivious women with devils attending his final moments gives way to regions both familiar – dreams and an early treating of them – to a more religiously-infused text than many we’re used to in drama.
This crabwise account moves sideways into wise saws and modern instances as you’d expect Browne and Aubrey later on to alerts anyone listening to how Nashe shapes our subsequent prose. In the second part we’re shifted across to ghost stories and the origin of dreams. Here Nashe’s memorable conjuration reaches its categorical zenith: ‘A dream is nothing else but the bubbling scum or froth of the fancy, which the day hath left undigested; or an after-feast made of the fragments of idle imagination.’
Nashe doesn’t leave it there, essaying the kinds of dream one can undergo dependent on what we’ve eaten, which he dismisses. Men eat birds so dream of flying, and fish thence of swimming. Side by encrusted side of religious chimera Nashe evinces a mind curiously sceptical, an emerging early modern mind. It’s not long to the seventeenth century.
Nashe is on firmer less fantastical ground when dealing with the fantastical he really despises: soothsayers, half-trained hedge astrologers and all kinds of quackery. His imagination can’t help contervaling one healthy doze of rationalism with a burst of another bubble from the earth, his imagination. The end’s a conjuration of salvation by gongs, bells, a further flight of candles.
Hamilton Dyer relishes and enacts this with great vigour. Faber at certain points picks up alternating or completing lines: this is magical prose drama. Recalling this is put together in a few hours, it’s a remarkable achievement even for RND and Morell and his team must know they’ve given birth to a superb monster. Where it’s slightly less successful is where actors simultaneously intone the same rich line; it’s slightly out of synch and the line’s so rich it might get overloaded if taken further. Whilst Hamilton Dyer stalks the stage or collapses magnificently in spasms, Faber apparates at the musician’s balcony above, or at an angle in the audience circle where something remarkable should happen but is left suspended. Faber’s sudden vocal explosion as a chiding wife is a highlight. She’s less used than Hamilton Dyer, her performance more muted with less scope to roar. Faber’s an assured performer in this repertoire; it would be good to see her offered more variety. Since Hamilton Dyer gets the lion’s share of text another female voice seems desirable both enacting witches and spirits, as well as channeling the prose’s agency on a more equal spirit level.
With Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament due in September, Nashe is enjoying a superb revival, and dramatizing him is the best way to relish his texts, with room enough to let the words settle in several gear-changes. We’ll soon be struck with that piece with such lines as ‘Brightness falls from the air/Queens have died young and fair… I am sick, I must die’ that Constant Lambert set entire in 1936.
This imaginative enterprise should be developed perhaps with at least one more actor, and certainly enjoy a niche run. It’s a triumph (both early modern and modern senses!) viscerally realized here with music and floating candles. Let it again feast our horrors, curiosity and uneasy laughter.