FringeReview UK 2018
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 Eastward Ho! is directed by Jason Morell at the Globe Wannamaker on May 13th. The next RND is sir Thomas Moore, on June 17th.
The Globe Education’s Read Not Dead Censorship Season starts with a new licence. With the inclusion of Globe Education information in the main 2018 programme there’s been a hugely enhanced appetite for RND shows. Suddenly it’s a full house.
As Read Not Dead suggests, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are reanimated for a single day. Here, though we’re seeing quite a popular play, huge and controversial in its time earning its collaborative authors a cut nose and ears overturned on appeal. The sin: making fun of Scotsmen.
Jason Morell returns to direct the co-authored 1605 Eastward Ho! which ran through five editions from September-December before being banned. Even so the first edition contained many more offensive comments about the Scots than later editions. Alas we only possess the second, so we can only guess at them.
But there’s a catch. Twelve of them: Morell contends this is the first or prototype musical. All through we’re subjected to a flurry of pop songs including two from The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady (a show-stopper) and Elvis amongst others.
Act 1 used to be ascribed to Marston (his The Dutch Courtesan, also 1605 features a goldsmith, there named Burnish), Acts 2 and 3 to Chapman and the last to Jonson. No-one now is at all sure, but you’d expect all the scruples and balances of trade to be a Jonson speciality. Point is, it’s clearly an active happy collaboration – till the authorities expressed their unhappiness. It’s a genuine fusion too: last century in such studies we’d have looked in dense poetic phrases for Chapman, in larky twists of plot and fantastical detail in Jonson, and in Marston a neatly-plotted moral dispatch. Maybe.
It’s a big cast, twenty-eight named or designated plus generics. Potentially forty-two. Even boiled to fourteen players doubling or tripling roles it’s large by RND standards, and so is the script. Eighty-one according to one awed usher, running a little over three hours. It’s technically one of the most challenging plays to mount like this. Oh and the songs. And at an expensive wedding there’s a Maghan mask…
Morell’s clarity, imaginative use of space and quick improvisations with the cast turned Eastward Ho! into another triumph. That’s not a foregone conclusion even by high RND standards – the whole needs pulling together with certain characters like mariners in discrete roles keeping up a distinct ripple of energy. The script’s luckily a strong one, full of catchphrases that tug it into unity – something the three playwrights must have decided on. Though (as was publicly declared to us) the company rehearsed fresh material even in the interval, the rationale throughout was clear.
Given that, there’s small room for props and these are necessarily kept to a minimum. A football’s dropped from the musicians’ balcony. Apple of discord, a tennis ball dropped from an unseen hand onto a court in Debussy’s Jeux. This is early modern Britain. It’s the chink of the middle classes baying for privilege in a thwunk of gold.
Of course there’s a prologue. The cast throw out lines in a neatly-aerated routine. It’s an ensemble they’re saying, the kind of thing you see in musicals.
I’ve not seen Michael Matus here before. Amongst numerous RSC and Globe credits is the last British (RSC Swan) revival of Eastward Ho! in 2002. He’s a revelation, full of physical energy, skirling laughter, ferocious denunciations and overall good humour, except when crossed. Very crossed. Matus is admittedly gifted a superb part, a fully realized self-made man as it were; but he brings it to such vividness he seems ready for a run. And he has worthy foils.
William Touchstone’s a London goldsmith. He’s got troubles. Two daughters and two apprentices, one of each golden, the other two a bit drossy, chasing gold. We see him in full roar with his catch phrase as he chastises his apprentice Francis ‘Frank’ Quicksilver for his laziness prodigality and sheer bloody cheek.
Ralph Davis was last in Massinger’s superb The Great Duke of Florence in November, also directed by Morell where his active appealing Sanazarro heightened rogueish ingratitude more than a Machiavel. Since then he’s appeared in a very different character in Will Eno’s The Open House at the Print Room.
In Eastward Ho! Davis is back to his seventeenth-century form as japing ne’er do well, a kind of proto Greed is Good yodelling the play’s title (to gloriously comic effect) as a kind of antidote to his master’s ‘work upon that now’ which turns as ubiquitous as any gag out of Morecombe and Wise.
This is one of those moments when middle-class ascendancy can be viscerally traced in the early modern play – and 1605’s the time when City comedies really took off. ‘Keep thy shop and thy shop will keep thee.’ Touchstone’s full of such saws. Someone like Touchstone’s a truculent East Ender straight out of say David Eldridge’s 2006 Market Boy even if that was set elsewhere. Quicksilver’s a second son of a gentleman as he never tires of telling us:
‘zblood, sir! my mother’s a gentlewoman, and my father a justice of peace and of quorum; and, though I am a younger brother and a prentice, yet I hope I am my father’s son…
hence his piqued entitlement rant, and grating sense of coming down in the world. Matus and Davis revel in confronting each other in some of the most exhilarating master-apprentice stand-offs I can remember.
Ever-exercised with ‘reputation’, Touchstone admonishes Quicksilver: ‘Work upon that now!’ the goldsmith wags his finger at Quicksilver’s shady deals – they’re really shady, pre-pyramid scams – and loose company (gaming lords who care nothing for him, his ‘punk’ too), but Quicksilver’s truculent: ‘Look not westward to the fall of Don Phœbus, but to the east — Eastward Ho!’
Contrastingly, Touchstone’s second apprentice, Golding, is industrious and temperate. The text’s a bit heavily laid on. Tok Stephen’s been a faithful RND actor in smaller roles, and here gets a strong moment of his own. It’s not a hugely grateful part, virtue writes invisible lines. But it’s an active one luckily, and in the work’s latter stages Stephen invests Golding with nobility, dispatch and agency.
Touchstone weedlingly admires Golding’s uprightness, hoping Golding will marry Mildred, his mild and modest daughter. You’d think this a bit yuck for Mildred, and even ask if she has a choice. Maeve Bluebell Wells happily invests a winning response leaving us in no doubt as to her delight. Again, she’s given less to do than Stephen and takes a tiny ensemble role.
Touchstone’s second daughter, Gertrude, is engaged to the fraudulent Sir Petronel Flash, a £30 knight – here’s the first of those Scots jibes and the original must have pointed this a lot more. Basically James I’s court sells the titles; we’ll never know but can guess at Jonson’s jabbing. Flash is also bankrupt. Too much i’ the knight perhaps.
Eliza Hunt’s Mistress Touchstone sides for the most part with Gertrude. Only latterly does she manage a volte-face worthy of the deepest-dipped hypocrisy. Hunt plays this humbug up gleefully. Plotwise and thematically her daughter needs an ally and exemplar but it’s not a developed part.
Unlike her sister of course, Gertrude is vain and ‘lascivious’ basically sexually switched on: not a vice now and not always then, depending on which genre and whether you’re already married (think Fletcher’s The Coxcomb). Still, she’s a real fashionista madam advancing her status by marrying Sir Petronel, here an oleaginous Nicholas Boulton. Daisy Boulton also featured at the Print Room recently, last September-October, in Alice Childress’ 1955 Trouble in Mind. There she was merely privileged and naive. Here she’s truly spoilt:
Body a’ truth! chitizens, chitizens! Sweet knight, as soon as ever we are married, take me to thy mercy out of this miserable chity; presently carry me out of the scent of Newcastle coal and the hearing of Bow-bell…
Typography aside it’s clear how ‘chitizens’ is going to get pronounced – it’s a running gag, as it were.
Boulton lets her inner madam shine in a scena of snobby petulance – disowning her father and sister at one point, demanding they call her lady. Gertrude’s lust is partly venal and we soon understand her flash-man can’t abide her. He’s aching to get his hands on her land. As for marriage he later describes it as so hot ‘hell’s a cool bath’ by comparison.
After reluctantly granting Gertrude’s inheritance (that tract of land via her overly-approving mother’s family), Touchstone heartily thrusts on Golding to marry Mildred. ‘Lip him!’ he orders. It’s difficult to know how to subvert the text here, just a little. Some sexual impatience perhaps. But this couple’s typology is more constrained than their comically monstered counterparts.
Davis’s Quicksilver enters roaring drunk the morning after Gertude and Petronel’s guilt-edged wedding. Touchstone breaks Quicksilver’s apprenticeship ‘work on that now’. Quicksilver naturally mocks Touchstone – ‘eastward ho!’ Downstage centre he whoops it up so the audience can’t help laughing. Touchstone promotes Golding, to guild- membership. It’s tricky but Stephen manages open-handed gratitude without the audience recoiling.
Enter Quicksilver’s crony. Patrick Toomey’s Security’s an old usurer and pander married to young Winifred, Charlotte Moore who’s keen on Quicksilver. Toomey’s all fuddling anxiety and jealousy – like Pinchwife and his spouse Margery in The Country Wife seventy years on. Moore’s confined as yet to covert simpering and darting looks. But wait.
Quicksilver devises how he’ll turn ligger without labour. There’s a great speech by Security about the wealth creation of money lending, managed by fleecing those who toil. It’s a deadly, timely ancestor of hedge funds and capital. Toomey – admittedly young-looking for Security – builds this with horrible conviction. Quicksilver’s sold. It’s a key speech suggesting Jonson’s remorseless logic.
Petronel arrives full of quitting London, especially Gertrude and her flash tastes. And ‘all the castles I have are built with air.’ Nicholas Boulton revels in seedy villainy. Again, degrees of cleverness – in conventions going back beyond Menander and Plautus – suggest Quicksilver’s the smartest, as in the lowliest position, gentleman or not.
Quicksilver thus persuades Petronel to use Gertrude’s dowry to fund their voyage to Virginia – cue for plenty of ravishing jokes there. Jonson who later castigated Shakespeare for his coasts of Bohemia, would have known they were twitting everyone on a Westward Ho! voyage to America – of which Eastward Ho! is the parody. For all his scheming it’s not clear Quicksilver even knows his east.
There’s one restraining voice: Security’s hapless daughter. Sindefy – yes a real name for a prostitute who’s the one redeeming character and true anomaly. Security’s pandered her to Quicksilver and she’s long been his willing mistress, a voice of affection, decency and restraint:
Well, Frank, well: the seas, you say, are uncertain: but he that sails in your court seas shall find ’em ten times fuller of hazard… What care and devotion must you use to humor an imperious lord, proportion your looks to his looks, smiles to his smiles; fit your sails to the winds of his breath!
Rebecca Todd had to stand in at short notice and wins an appealing turn here and as Scapethrift, one of three Virginia-bound adventurers. With a piratical chorus.
As Touchstone flourishes Golding and Mildred now married, Gertrude flaunts ‘Lady’ over her family, disowning them. You do wish a sibling squabble might break out, and the one rigidity of the play is the lack of comic amplitude it allows Golding and Mildred. But Boulton’s Gertrude whoops up all the unpleasantness and Matus’ Touchstone seems to acquiesce; but he’ a downy old bird.
Once Gertrude unsuspectingly signs away her dowry, Petronel & Co. embark for Virginia. Just before, Quicksilver and Petronel tell old Security to distract lawyer Bramble (Eliza Hunt again, neatly fumbling securities) so they can sneak Bramble’s wife on the voyage. Instead, Quicksilver disguises Winifred and fetches her on board, fooling Security who even recommends his wife’s red dress – fittingly supplied here as one of the sparing props.
Paul Hamilton’s impressively-voiced Captain Seagull musters Petronel and his fellow adventurers to set sail for Virginia. Harrah! go Hamilton, Todd and Moore – now doubling as Spendall. They drink up promises – Virginia’s very chamber pots are of gold – while Petronel and Quicksilver conceal Winifred’s identity from Bramble and Security. There’s a great bit of stage business where a large sail-sheet’s flapped in the Pit: Crash: a storm hits.
Martins Imhangbe’s butcher’s apprentice Slitgut slips in to rail at a tripe of excesses, about Cuckold Have, old men marrying and magnificently disproportioned to action, and cleverly so contrasting the storm business (think drunken porter). It’s a standstill moment and there’s whole sides of prose – Slitgut’s the still-point too for all the circling idiocy, a lightning-rod of judgement. Imhangbe relishes it all, then badinages the woebegone Security.
Elsewhere, Security sees Winifred escape with Petronel in a lifeboat, suspecting she’s cheated on him, off to Billingsgate. ‘Woe be to thee, Billingsgate!’ A fishy in-joke. Separated from Quicksilver and Petronel, Security washes ashore on Cuckold’s Haven where he stays in a nearby tavern. Winifred also arrives at the tavern rescued by Drawer (Jay Varsani), one of the voyagers after Quicksilver lost her.
Shipwrecked and disoriented, Quicksilver and Petronel mewlingly decide they’re in France. After franglaising about two passing gentlemen tell them first in fluent French they’ve arrived on the Isle of Dogs. Quicksilver boasts to Petronel and Seagull he’ll goldsmith them counterfeit money. Crest-risen, Davis frolics in such blinders as these:
I’ll tell you how yourself shall blanch copper thus cunningly. Take ars’nic, otherwise call realga (which indeed is plain ratsbane); sublime him three or four times; then take the sublimate of this realga and put him into a glass, into chymia, and let him have a convenient decoction natural, four-and-twenty hours, and he will become perfectly fix’d; then take this fixed powder, and project him upon well-purg’d copper…
Again a Jonsonian periodic table befuddles them with alchemy. Back in the tavern, Winifred lies to Security to cover up her affair with Petronel.
The whole of IV/I’s a massive tableau ending with Slitgut carving at folly, and then in IV/2 an equal slab of exultant prose: Touchstone, keen on revenge. Matus cavorts in a dance of vengeance.
Well, mine errant Sir Flash, and my runagate Quicksilver, you may drink drunk, crack cans, hurl away a brown dozen of Monmouth caps or so, in sea-ceremony to your bon voyage; but, for reaching any coast, save the coast of Kent or Essex, with this tide, or with this fleet, I’ll be your warrant for a Gravesend toast.
He’s clearly out of humour and it’s Golding’s job to brig him to – if not sublimation at least a precipitate mercy. That’s not easy and the rest of the play’s tension depends on Touchstone’s disposing of power magnanimously.
We see a flurry of small parts including Sam Harrison as Hamlet – a footman. He’s used to dispatch messages and ‘mad’ is bandied about as description. It’s possible to see Jonson as the author of this. Or Chapman… Harrison’s excellent, the most sparkling in a small role. Varsani’s tankard bearer is another small gem. But best of all the two combine as crones Mistresses Ford (Harrison) and Gazer (Varsani) to watch a procession, almost: ‘he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy’.
Nearby, Golding’s been promoted to Master Deputy Alderman. You get a wincing flavour of his humour here:
Sir, as I was not ambitious of this, so I covet no higher place; it hath dignity enough, if it will but save me from contempt; and I had rather my bearing in this or any other office should add worth to it than the place give the least opinion to me.
He reports shipwrecked voyagers, arrested at Billingsgate for their crimes. Cue the quality of mercy sublimated if not strained. Stephen’s quick thrusts of negotiation and pleading as he sets about plotting to reconcile all parties show him able to combine physical urgency with grace. It’s nearly the best anyone can do with this part.
Meanwhile, denuded Gertrude sells her finery, lamenting. Mistress Touchstone implores her to seek Mildred’s help. It’s Boulton’s penultimate great scene and Hunt and she manage one of the two or three women-only scenes. It’s here Gertrude sings ‘All I want’ from My Fair Lady. Boulton milks this shamelessly, for about twenty seconds…. Later her mother really turns on the screws and denounces her.
There’s quite a scene of Quicksilver’s repentance in particular as well as Petronel’s. When Golding gets money to Quicksilver via the decent warder Counter Wolf (Imhangbe again) he immediately dispenses it amongst fellow-prisoners as he had with his finery. Davis shows as real an inwardness as the part and time allows, making this almost credible. There’s a sense that this character’s in some small measure bi-polar, which works neatly.
Brought before Golding and Touchstone, Petronel and Quicksilver admit they’re guilty as charged including Petronel’s dishonest marriage, the dowry deception, and Quicksilver’s thievery. Touchstone’s appalled, refusing mercy on the voyagers.
Quicksilver sings a snatch about repenting his schemes, starts to at least. Its shift in character and denouncement of vice stuns Touchstone to tears. Golding releases the criminals, including Security, still lamenting his cuckoldry. Golding ensures though as bond that Quicksilver marries his long-suffering Sindefy.
Touchstone reinstates Quicksilver as his apprentice and Petronel as his son-in-law, covering the loss of their possessions and wealth. Gertrude reconciles with Petronel and the play ends rousingly. The final tableau included all actors on stage as at the beginning throwing out lines in cheerful exuberance.
This is one of the most exuberant and superbly orchestrated RNDs I’ve seen. To manage a cast of fourteen, to add the ambitious musical elements, not to cut subplots and extra commentators like Slitgut, let alone Hamlet, is a prodigious feat. Actors like Matus, Davis, Boulton and Boulton, as well as smaller roles like Hamilton’s and heroic substitutions like Todd’s define the spirit of RND. Morell certainly does.