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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

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 Peele’s Edward I on Sunday February 10th directed by James Wallace inaugurates the Robin Hood Season. The next RND’s of George A Green, The Pinner of Wakefield, by Robert Greene on June 9th 2019.


So after nearly three months, director James Wallace – who directed the last Read Not Dead in November – returns with George Peele’s historical epic Edward I. It kicks off the Robin Hood Season of Read Not Dead at the Globe’s Wannamaker.


As Lois Potter makes clear, there were hundreds of Hobbehods or Robehods in legal records throughout 13th and 14th centuries. By early modern times, and plays this season, the legend was stable, but you weren’t confined to bad King John; alas Shakespeare didn’t give him the Hoodie treatment.


That Hood’s cowled here but Peele’s work does include a play about, or thematic nod to, the legend. In Edward I it’s rebellious Welsh who don the mantle to spar with…. Edward I himself. It’s not quite masque, this scrap of legendary greensward.


In effect it attenuates the play’s temper for four relatively good-natured acts (that’s a retrospective division, Peele didn’t divide them). The fifth turns stark, strange tragedy. It presents director and the actor playing the eponymous hero with choices, regal nullities and sheer linguistic blanks in speeches belying the brilliance and sophistication of much of this work.


John Hopkins as long-suffering Longshanks himself deploys every register. Then Wallace and team ensure it’s a riotously funny staging, calling up the best Globe Wanamaker traditions. I’ve never seen an RND audience participate like this.


There’s impressive massy swords, a Welsh flag draped from the gallery; a smaller Scottish one. And two chairs. A few blankets, some apposite clothing. Wallace keeps everything moving with incredible briskness; faux pas are superbly rehearsed. Note Edward I getting his Welsh wrong, every time. Till the last one. Real hiatuses are celebrated ‘Page sixty-three’ says Hopkins airily at one point.


As RND suggests to those new to it, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are reanimated for a day. RND by 2033 will have put on all extant plays between 1567 and 1642, including Hamlet.


Peele’s a history play pioneer; this work arrived at the start of a post-Armada vogue. For much of its length, interpretation levels along the blank picaresque, vivid caricatures and stereotypes; certainly an advance towards Shakespearean history plays though. It’s what happens to the most developed characters – Edward himself, his queen Eleanor – that cause us to wonder if late scenes were rewritten. Or confirm a very odd swerve of Peele’s own.


Dating from 1590-91 it might have constituted the first of three Edwardiads – Marlowe’s Edward II, Kyd’s and Shakespeare’s Edward III. There’s severed head imagery: either Peele’s play influenced Marlowe or visa versa.


Entitled – as such works are – The Famous Chronicle of Edward I, surnamed Edward Longshanks, it’s a powerful pointed work that gets straight off to satire.


Queen Mother (Hilary Tones) and Zoe Waites’ Queen Eleanor amongst others welcome Edward back from the Holy Land. Son Alphonso’s died in the interim. Then everyone outbids themselves in following his example in donating to a ‘college’ of maimed war veterans hundreds of thousands of pounds. Two actors cowl themselves in blankets downstage. Historically this wouldn’t have been dreamt of, but Leicester did it abroad in 1587; Elizabeth promised to, but naturally failed. The scene thus delivers a just rebuke under the pageantry of largesse. It’s the most pointed contemporary reference, rooted in some of Peele’s own dealings.


We’re then subjected to rumblings in Wales and Scotland. Mark Hammersley’s dashing Llewelyn is unhappy his lovely wife Lady Eleanor (one of Ffion Jones’ roles) has been taken hostage. There’s a clever plot where his brother Sir David – James Askill – pretending loyalty to Edward gets captured by his own brother. Apparently he has his nose pincered on the battlements – the gallery’s used cheerfully mainly to hang the flag from. Askill’s a memorably funny actor, enlivening even epics with winking mischief. Edwards relents.


Tok Stephen, designing Mortimer, lusts after Welsh Eleanor and plots revenge. Stephen makes the most of Mortimer’s suppressed rage: few parts allow that much subtext.


There’s a fine subplot with Michael Geary’s superbly-voiced comic Friar Hugh aka Tuck, his novice Jack (Georgia Frost) and the young woman he’s wooing, Guenthian, another Ffion Jones role. Morgan the harper a prophet – Jen Shakesby’s major role – is built up as she not only sings but brings the audience on too, to sing Welsh lyrics. To milk such laughs argues some serious production values.


Jones too is required to sing at several points, not only eliciting audience participation but guying herself in the process. It’s delicious.


Martin Hodgson, with three parts (also Earl of Sussex and a hapless Friar-dice-duped Farmer) makes his most substantial contribution as wily Owen ap Rhys.


Later Edward realizes he’s been duped in a famous Hood-disguised stand-off where he and Stephen’s glowering Mortimer take on the two brothers disguised, Llewelyn as ‘Master of Misrule‘. It’s not a straight English win and Edward has to come to terms.


It’s the kind of scene where you feel the play might end cheerily short of head-lopping. Robin Hood tends to. The tenor, even here, in an equivalent to Act IV, is light, archly hoisted on a petard of comedy.


Not all the Welsh end unhappily, but Askill’s Sir David makes you long for a better end. James Bradwell’s single appearance as Rhys ap Meredith is another active Welsh role. Alan Cox, yet another Welsh lord Guenther has a more substantial role as John Balliol, chosen by Edward as new Scottish king, who later rebels and even kills off smarmy emissary Georgia Frost’s Lord Versses. Cue audience hisses.


Cox revels in his accents too. Though the Scottish plot is much thinner – we end around 1290 and little hammering of Scots has taken place because it ends badly – we get a solid sense of its unfolding. Oh, and the flag.


Threaded through all this is that English court where Waites’ Spanish Eleanor grows villainous: she hates English weather. Not content with scorning the christening robe woven by Welsh women for the first Prince of Wales, she more than curses dank Wales. London’s clouds, look out. Eleanor’s understandably miffed with Edward who cleverly gets round swearing the Prince of Wales would be Welsh-born by dragging Eleanor over to Carmarthen to give birth.


Her sadistic torture and murder of munificent Mary, Mayoress of London – Hilary Tones’ most dramatic role – marks the drastic shift. Bound and asked to choose between being nurse or worse, Mary chooses Nurse and gets an adder to her breast. This added tale is set to inflame London.


Not before Joan of Acon, Eleanor’s daughter with Edward – Emma Denly’s role mixes earnest restraint with pathos – happily marries Ekow Quartey’s Gloucester. It’s not usually the fate of monarchs’ daughters to marry mere Earls, which might on the face of it avert the bizarre sacrificial scene later.


Waites’ supreme moment has her vanish from Charing Green (via a green sheet), turning up in Potter’s Bar, by magic and now dying. Hilary Tones now gets revenge as a Potter’s Wife by noting the wonder.


Eleanor finally repenting doesn’t know Edward disguised as a friar and his brother Edmund (Oliver Bennett, whose role springs to guilty life here) are hearing her last confession (absurdity bubbles; it’s meant to be straight). Which is: the only child that was Eleanor’s and Edward’s is the glorious future Edward II. Who’s about six. Elder son Alphonso was in fact fathered by… Edmund; Joan by a lusty friar – difficult not to conjure up Geary here. Joan discovering this dies of shame just after her mother; Hopkins is given preemptory clear-up lines which he guys with the comedy of earlier scenes; he can’t believe them, and ensures neither do we. It’s up to Quartey’s dignified deliberating Gloucester to lament Joan.


This inevitably puzzles. The senior figure traditionally closes. Here it’s a grieving subject, albeit a senior one, who goes off with the dying fall of his wife.


Peele proves a dramatist of élan, power and genuine vision. His language and syntax is forward-looking. If he’s not entirely erased the ramshackle pageant of this genre’s infancy he’s shaped it prophetically. Quite how the work gear-shifts from this to erasing Edward’s family, Welsh regal demise (a rolling head) and Mortimer darkly getting his Eleanor as booty, is a puzzle the text leaves. Edward’s closing couplet on solitude might seem fitting; Gloucester’s might precede it. Here’s it’s played as printed and works as much as this powerfully troubling drama can. Hopkins, dominating, nevertheless just heads Wallace’s stunningly-fleshed production with tis sparkling roles. Could this be staged any more convincingly? Superb.