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 Sir Thomas More is directed by James Wallace at the Globe Wannamaker on June 17th. The next RND continues the Censorship (and Massinger) Season is Massinger’s Believe What You List, on July 15th.
The Globe Education’s Read Not Dead Censorship Season continues with its sell-out performances thanks to the inclusion of Globe Education information in the main 2018 programme.
As Read Not Dead suggests, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are reanimated for a single day. This particular work though is popular and staged: RND by 2033 will have put on all extant plays between 1567 and 1642, including Hamlet.
Sir Thomas More with its 147 lines by Shakespeare, was always going to be popular. Indeed it’s a superb play quite apart from Shakespeare’s sovereign intercessions in key tricky areas. Originally penned by Anthony Munday and Thomas Chettle in 1592-93, it’s a dangerous, edgy biopic that sweeps attention from its bustling woman-slavery spat to the last scenes’ witty devastation. Regulars would have seen Munday in his 1584 Fidele and Fortunio last June; this is very different.
Sparked in part by the new 1592 race riots, harking back to the ‘Ill May’ ones of 1517 against Flemish weavers, seemed uncomfortable to Elizabeth’s authorities. And the clemency shown by Henry VIII wasn’t reflected a few years after this play’s first draft: in 1595 disturbers of the peace were hanged.
Despite the work’s mandatory theme of submitting before the law to avoid greater disaster, even when it’s manifestly unfair, it proved too much; especially as much sympathy and two acts were invested in the rioters, with perhaps spurious grounds invented for provoking legitimate grievance. Sir Thomas More was effectively shelved by Tilney the original censor. His demands included cutting the whole rioting drama around which the first two acts are built. And elements of the last two acts.
Usually only Shakespeare of all the history playwrights ventured into modern times, enjoying an unbroken run of monarchs too. From collaborating with Kyd in Edward III, and debate still circling on the original authorship/collaboration of much of the three Henry VI plays (most recently Marlowe), it’s worth remarking that only Shakespeare goes as far as Richard III characterising the future Henry VII by 1592. And filled in the gaps from the seditious Richard II to Essex-cheering Henry V. Then with Henry VIII (probably with Fletcher) he even portrays the recently-deceased infant monarch Elizabeth in 1613.
Since the 1590s spawned a play for each monarch, dramatists’ tacit silence on the last two hundred years suggests a caution or recognition the period might be left to Shakespeare’s political adroitness. An interesting exception is Thomas Heywood’s 1599 Edward IV Parts 1 and 2 – but again this focuses on Edward’s affair with Jane Shore.
So Shakespeare and Heywood might have seemed obvious fits when Sir Thomas More though was dusted off in 1603, when the vogue for history plays and national identification after the Armada had dropped from fashion in a more uneasy age. Munday was no longer involved. But Heywood, possibly Thomas Dekker and by universal consent Shakespeare were on hand. He’s literally Hand D.
Sir Thomas More is astonishingly vivid for the portrait it gives us of a man close to Robert Bolt’s portrayal in A Man For All Seasons. All this stems from More’s son-in-law: Roper’s biography. It’s testimony though to the historical and fictional More being still so much the figure we recognize. All the jokes are there, and more as it were we didn’t know.
Munday and Chettle select events in More’s life, essentially 1517, the first two acts, then a compression of meeting Erasmus (they in fact met in 1499, so a non-recognition scene is wonderful licence); and the last one and half acts from 1533-35. There’s no need to dilate on More’s work, his Utopia or indeed the reason for his and John Fisher, Bishop Rochester’s obdurate refusal to counter-sign an edict for the king. Divorce is wisely divorced.
Many of the fifteen actors are regulars almost as much as director James Wallace in this speedy, swiftly-dispatched drama that traverses seventy pages in just two hours and forty minutes including an interval. Props include a mace and Chancellor’s orb with chains of office – rather splendid lendings from the Globe as are swords and a few other items. Otherwise Wallace dresses actors in 20th century garb including Eden hats, particularly when in counsels of state. The hat detail underlines a doff to the then modern day dress at the end of Shaw’s 1924 Saint Joan or T. S. Eliot’s 1935 Murder in the Cathedral.
The play’s nineteen scenes include four cancelled. Themes of obedience to the crown and More’s particular cross, rule of law, with an anti-alien mob are tested; then he is. There’s a skilful manipulation of sympathy to and fro.
We’re hurtled into a great street scene finding echoes in many plays from Dekker to Shakespeare though this tradition started in the 1580s as we saw last year. These 1517 Ill May Day events are sparked by immigrants from Lombardy (northern Italy), abusing their rights over London citizens.
Munday and Chettle have an eye on pacifying an audience not wanting to be seen as xenophobes. So they attach a singular motive. Flemish weaver Oliver Senton’s Francis de Barde claims ownership of Emily Tucker’s feisty Doll Williamson, a carpenter’s wife. De Barde later crows: ‘if she were the Mayor of London’s wife, had I once had her in my possession, I would keep her in spite of him that durst say nay.’
The British are prevented by law from physical opposition. A second Flemish merchant Alan Cox’s Cavele arrives and with Doll’s husband Williamson (James Thorne), the Betts brothers George (Elliot Fitzpatrick) and Rafe the Clown, Mark Hammersley who later proves a mean singer and lutenist. The Williamsons aren’t the only couple so abused: a luckless goldsmith (James Askill’s Sherwin) whose wife has also been somehow ‘purchased’ turns up.
It’s lively stuff. Doll’s gifted some of the best lines: ‘If men’s milky hearts dare not strike a stranger, yet women beat them down, ere they bear these abuses’ (curiously More was born in Milk Street). Tucker revels in this her major role and impressively lays out a resistance taken up by others. Tucker’s character energizes the first two acts up to her near-hanging. That’s to anticipate, but Doll’s part with Tucker tears through the early Acts’ bustle.
Cue Lincoln, Mark Oosterven’s first and major appearance of his four roles. Lincoln’s no rabble-rouser; he wants redress and reason. The historical Lincoln got up a priest to preach a sermon against Lombards, but again the dramatists are at pains to show his essential decency, a willingness to abide by decisions of someone like More when he arrives.
Lincoln cries up a mild havoc, Ill Mayday and revenge. London noblemen are stumped, when rioting breaks out across London; not even the Mayor of London can stop them: indeed he’s in peril. David Meyer’s first appearance of several where his gravitas and power ground the play, impresses with the conviction of a man torn in conscience and affect. Oliver Senton pops up again as Suresby, a Justice, enjoying one of his richer roles (more’s to come).
Send for Sheriff Thomas More, already popular and respected, to calm the civil broils.
More though is involved in a comedic sub-plot where Tok Stephen’s Lifter is to be hanged for cut-pursing by a jury led by Suresby. Stephen’s been in most recent productions and it tells; he’s acquired presence and the weight of iambic delivery.
John Hopkins proves ideal for this role: his keen delivery is one of the highlights in recent RNDs; here he lightens timbre, dealing with comic episodes. The dramatists shrewdly let us see him deliver levity before justice and Hopkins seizes his opportunity to act like a thief and magistrate, conspire and pronouncer, in a comedy of registers.
More gets Lifter off by having him filch Suresby’s purse when alone with Senton’s Suresby and passing it across to More; the denouement’s telescopic but establishes More’s humanity and sense of fun.
The deputation arrives. A military response is urged (in reality a cannon fired by the Tower’s commander, infuriated everyone). Emma Denly’s Surrey and Alan Cox’s Earl of Shrewsbury are faced with insurrection – London was overrun and Surrey’s army of 1300 had to be brought in.
There’s a great scene as the squad arrives – the two Betts brothers sport England shirts all this time, others come waving St George with other fandom. It’s a cheerfully menacing scene where we don’t need to squint for parallels.
Next thing we do is set fire to the foreigners’ homes. It’s not Jack Cade’s 1450 rebellion but Doll and Lincoln lead this different flashpoint; the audience is being nudged to shift sympathies. Lombards vanish, it’s no longer about them.
Hopkins assumes More’s regal modesty with glints of implacable honour. He newly mints the famous address. Ian McKellen recently reprised the part he played in 1964 and on Radio 3 in 1983, for an anti-Trump soundbite. Simon Callow too used them in a one-man Shakespeare show from 2010.
More arrives at St. Martin’s gate. The rioters express grievances, agree to hear him; everyone else is gleefully shouted down.
More begins claiming the riots disgrace England; if disorder prevails, civil society falls apart, none of the rioters will see old age. When they rebel against law, they rebel against God.
Shakespeare isn’t above recycling his ‘slip/hounds’ trope from Henry V and Julius Caesar for this jobbing patch. His argument is specific though, grounded in the politic argufying of the Roman plays, appropriate for a Latinist lawyer like More.
Hopkins delivers it not like others thunderingly, but with clean swift logic, holding the mob’s hush in his hands:
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound; alas, alas, say now the King,
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?
Throwing the paradox back in their teeth he underlines it. Hopkins continues with a steely urgency, gathering the thread but not hammering it in a needless rhetorical flourish. He emphasizes and pleads for humanity:
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth…
What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
More’s humanizing refugee Lombards, reflecting the narrative back on British exiles isn’t hypothetical and his audience knew it. By 1603 many Catholics were forced to sue for aid in foreign countries.
More offers a deal: If they’ll surrender peacefully to prison, he promises pardon. The other option’s death. The rioters accept More’s offer, and submit.
Notwithstanding More’s promises, the rioters are about to be hanged. Lincoln makes a noble speech only regretting More’s decency didn’t extend to being able to keep his word. It’s a solemn moment, proleptic of another execution; and comes at the play’s halfway point.
Tucker’s Doll refuses to let anyone go next except herself, so she won’t have to suffer seeing her husband hanged before her. It’s a riveting scene, even if you know what’ll happen next. Tucker rises to a valedictory power and nobility that makes this a true performance. The front of the stage with its drop to the pit is used for Oosterveen’s Lincoln and partially for Tucker’s Doll too. Doll complains about More’s not keeping faith, but generally praises him.
Then Denly’s Surrey arrives to announce that the execution order’s been stayed by order of the King – More’s pleaded for their lives. The historical record tells us thirteen were hanged but many more were to be till the prisoners were championed before the king by nobles going on their knees to plead successfully. This might have included More.
More’s knighted, promoted to Privy Councilor for his role in ending the riots. Senton has become Sir Thomas Palmer, Suzanne Ahmet makes her first appearance here as Sir roger Chomley, Beth Park as a Recorder slightly earlier, Stephen becomes Sir John Munday before morphing into his major role of Roper.
Victor Gardener’s first role as Sergeant at Arms Downes allows a literally towering presence (he earlier held aloft an England flag). We’re still in 1517. It’s worth pausing to reflect how much of this play is about quelling and reasoning with insurrection when genuine grievance is addressed. In 1592 it’s a demonstrably raw subject.
WE cut to 1533-35. There’s a great soliloquy at the start of Act III, and again Hopkins takes this with the meditative expectancy the part demands.
‘t is in heaven that I am thus and thus;
And that which we profanely term our fortunes
Is the provision of the power above,
Fitted and shaped just to that strength of nature
Which we are borne withal. Good God, good God,
That I from such an humble bench of birth
Should step as ’twere up to my country’s head,
And give the law out there! I, in my father’s life,
To take prerogative and tithe of knees
From elder kinsmen, and him bind by my place
To give the smooth and dexter way to me
That owe it him by nature!
Hopkins ensures the turning-point’s not omitted, prophetic as the whole is.
Sure, these things,
Not physicked by respect, might turn our blood
To much corruption. But, More, the more thou hast,
Either of honor, office, wealth, and calling,
Which might excite thee to embrace and hub them,
The more doe thou in serpents’ natures think them;
Fear their gay skins with thought of their sharp state;
And let this be thy maxim, to be great
Is when the thread of hayday is once ’spon,
A bottom great wound up great undone.
More’s to be visited by his friend, Erasmus. They’d really met in 1499 though much of their relationship was epistolary.
Suddenly there’s another case where More’s humour is tried. One brawling Faulkner – James Askill again – burls in claiming his glorious head of hair (a convincing wig) isn’t to be forfeit even if he’ll rot in Newgate for it. There’s an Sampson-ish equivalence of hair-growing and brawling power. Falkner’s defying his master, Morris (grave and again fine David Meyer). It’ll take Faulkner three years to grow such hair again he declares; More deems that’s how long he’ll spend. Askill, who made a glorious pig of himself on Ferrero Rocher chocolates as Cupid last year in Sappho and Phao makes a comparatively shaven head of it. A cheerfully tough sentence is grounded in knowledge that Faulkner will obey.
As Oosterveen’s Erasmus arrives More has Surrey try to convince Erasmus that James Thorne’s Randall is More. Thorne elegantly stumbles with a floundering welcome, Oosterveen clearly sceptical; Hopkins’ reveal relieves everyone. Faulkner’s freed, Askill bewailing his haircut like a denuded troll. More waits for the Lord Mayor to come to dinner, reconciling him to Erasmus’s departure.
By this time Stephen as Roper, Ahmet as Lady More, Park as Mistress Roper and Tucker as a near-silent second daughter are introduced and reappear through Acts IV and V.
Players arrive. More has them act for the party: The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom.
Cox revels s Prologue, Senton sibilates as Inclination, the Vice, Denly as lubricious Lady Vanity, and finally Askill (who else?) as Luggins. It’s a good excuse for a mini-masque romp.
When Luggins misses his scene More takes his place till the actor arrives. He’s called away to court before the play can resume, but sends the actors eight angels via Randall. The actors aren’t happy. Why not ten? They mime scrabbling for two missing angels for More’s benefit – who immediately dismisses Randall for stealing them; so everyone but Randall’s happy. It’s resonant for early modern audiences: simple players accorded justice over a favourite retainer.
We’re offered a brief amplitude of court and power here rarely seen outside Shakespeare or Ford’s Perkin Warbeck mounted at RND in 2015.
The council debates an alliance with the German emperor. More recommends it – it’s as pertinent to 1604 as 1533’s new Lutheran divisions were about to be to England.
Senton’s Palmer arrives with articles from the king that all councillors must sign. Meyer in his next role as Rochester refuses, so is summoned to the king. More asks for more time, resigning as chancellor. Hopkins havers agonies of split loyalty, where Rochester’s are unwavering, presented by Meyer with finality, indeed fatality. More’s under house arrest at Chelsea. The others all sign in a superbly undignified scrabble.
Ahmet’s Lady More tells Stephen’s Roper about a strange dream, where she and More drowned (at the point More’s head was later displayed). Ahmet exudes foreboding. Roper demurs but he and his wife admit to each other their own dark dreams. More enters cheerfully, refuses to let anyone be downcast at his change of fortune. At the Tower, Rochester surrenders himself and Meyer – robed in one of the more impressive garbs, shrugs on mortality impressively.
The script here seems so close to Bolt you expect Paul Scofield to pop up saying ‘but for Wales’ to Richard Rich (not featured). Hopkins’ More rolls Latin to silence Ahmet’s bewailing a lack of court life, extolling family and friends how the world’s glories were decorations.
There’s fine ensemble work as we’re treated to Denly’s Surrey and Cox’s Shrewsbury arriving with Gardner’s Downes the imposing Sergeant-at-Arms. Everyone implores More to sign the articles; refusing he’s arrested for high treason.
It’s fascinating how the dramatists adroitly counterpoise the lot of ordinary Londoners with More’s life. A woman (Park) arrives at the Tower hoping to speak to More, championing her lawsuit; he tells her her papers are impounded with the king. That’s pretty near the bone..
Again Act V’s illustrative of how much London characters are wooed throughout. Hammersley’s Catesby with Fitzpatrick’s Gough go to More’s house to inform the family he’s been sentenced to death. But it’s More’s servants who produce a final ensemble comedy discussing it. Thorne’s lean and alert Ned the Butler, Askill’s roistering Robin the Brewer, Oosterveen’s burly Giles the Porter and Gardener’s Rafe the Horsekeeper looking rather convincing produce a beery Greek chorus.
More still mints jokes. Senton’s Lieutenant is astonished to discover that More isn’t rich, not being corrupt. It’s a fine exchange, given pause here. More’s family arrives in a last bid but get advice. It’s delineated strongly giving plenty of scope for Ahmet, Park, Tucker and Stephen.
More’s brought to the block, nicely mounted here, chaffing with crestfallen friends and colleagues. Hopkins in a final discreet flourish makes the great exit line about being helped up and coming down he’ll shift for himself (the dramatists use a slightly lengthier expression) forgives Oosterveen the hangman and exits in earnest with him.
This the second RND this year easily maintains the bar set so high by Eastward Ho! Wallace has directed many fine RNDs; this might even be his best yet. It’s fleet, superbly characterised in major parts but inevitably Hopkins takes the palm for centring a superbly-realized portrayal. The collaborators and revisers too, should be remembered: it’s remarkably seamless, clean, but with local detail you’d expect from Munday, Dekker and Heywood.