FringeReview UK 2019
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 Mundays’s The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon was directed by Emma Pallant. Joseph Prowen provides music, singing and playing the violin. There’s use of the balcony and with a little emerald greenery for uniform (soon morphing to black) and a few swords, this long work unfolds rapidly over three hours ten with interval. The next RND is on a Sunday in February date at the Wanamaker TBA.
At first sight the spoiler title The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon suggests a sequel to Antony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon. At second sight, a third of the way in, spoiler alert, it’s happened and in a blink King Richard’s gone too – there’s a ghost of a lost Richard play Munday tacitly references. What we’ve got though is a finely-written diptych – the first to link Robin Hood with the Earl of Huntingdon.
Written with possible input from Henry Chettle around 1598, both plays were acted with the Admiral’s Men – who usually went in for less popular stuff, though 28 of 30 of their house-writers’ collaborations are lost. This 1601-published sequel is in effect the tragedy of Marian, now Matilda, Robert or Robin Hood’s fiancée and her attempts not to lose virginity and honour to lecherous Prince now alas King John. It doesn’t end well.
The amazing thing is that it indeed ends so well. Director Emma Pallant pushes the mainly new cast (Joanne Howarth is one who appears in both) to new familiarity and powers. So this performance ends by being consummately acted, pretty well off the page, provoking wonder at Munday’s bifurcated script. It’s strongly-written, with memorable scenes.
Joseph Prowen provides music, singing and playing the violin with dark folk-inflections. There’s use of the balcony and with a little emerald greenery for merry uniform (soon morphing to black) and a few swords with a doll (wait for that), this long work unfolds rapidly over three hours ten with interval.
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.
Oscar Conlon-Morrey delights in a narrational role as Friar Tuck. We start with a dramatic quadrangle, with Alfred Enoch’s Robin or Robert proving ‘a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly’ which might be Iago’s curse but which sits with Robert’s uncle, Alex Blake’s Prior of York who opines:
He is a fool, and will be reconciled
To any foe he hath; he is too mild,
Too honest for this word, fitter for heaven
Which is where the Prior and Olivier Huban’s suavely menacing Earl of Doncaster send him with poison and an affecting scene with Bethan Nash’s ardent Matilda/Marian, and Enoch’s fine dying-off. They’ve already killed off haplessly loyal Warman (Prowen’s first role, he returns first as Scarlet, then finger-wagging Ely all in Act One) trying to make it look like suicide. Predictably Robert/Robin forgives them though Patrick Driver’s avuncular Richard answers Prior York’s too-late remorse and pleas to be executed kindly: he gets simply hanged and buried. Doncaster’s given a nastier end.
Though Prior’s given licence as an Aaron figure, he repents, and it falls to Huband’s self-delighting Doncaster as wondrously-wrought villain to fulfil the rich evils of Aaron, unrepentant till the last.
And that’s Act One. In medieval life, like American careers there is no Act Two for most of these characters including Robin’s men – Scarlet, Tuck, Howarth’s Little John and Hermione Gulliford’s Much who follows Richard to the Holy Land and thence Richard’s narrated death.
Conlon-Morrey though is here to narrate as Tuck and then in the equivocal John-loving villain Hubert what next befalls. Shaun Prendergast takes central role in commanding voice as the fixer Salisbury, who with Anna Crichlow’s Chester vacillates away from John.
Munday’s plots are well-defined: various seizures of castles and parallels with Shakespeare’s 1596 King John where classic plot-points there – like the death of Prince Arthur – are used as parallels to ones here.
Now Dickon Tyrrell’s Fitzwalter, father of Matilda/Marion, has much to Polonius through as it were. First he cajoles his daughter through her effective widowhood to go get another husband, and focuses on the spotless virginity theme: this with the noble, even glutinous trope of forgiveness centres Munday’s Christian message loudly throughout the play; foil to wicked King John. Later Fitzwalter spoils an affecting scene bidding his daughter farewell (up in the gallery) at a monastery. His last words are avoiding bring the family ‘shame’ which rather guys sentiment. It raises an uneasy laugh.
Enoch now appears as Young Bruce and his strong presence and lithe voice cuts through again as the heroic new protagonist. It costs him dear and essentially he and Matilda as Nash now is, are in a sense the nodal points with a suggestive romantic affinity. John pursues Matilda, and Young Bruce finds himself the centre of resistance to John’s laying siege.
Jamie Wilkes’ John is a dark comic role and Wilkes plays it with a wonderfully dissembling bafflement at people’s perfidity. Anyone who recalls or on DVD seen Leonard Rossiter’s King John in the 1970s-80s BBC Shakespeare series (first broadcast November 1983) will recall why that was inspired casting. John was uniquely reviled as a king till the 18th century: one reason there was never a John II, or for instance a Richard IV. Dramatic agency of his vile incompetence (as projected in early modern drama) is less muted than in Shakespeare: Wilkes delights in the cardboard 2D villainy that scores through Munday’s inflections of Richard III, though necessarily without that play’s inwardness.
After Old Bruce dies after a victorious battle helping his son, Wilkes’ John pursues both Matilda and the Bruce family – Lady Bruce defiant over surrendering her younger son, citing Prince Arthur’s end. It seems Munday’s anxious to counterpoint Shakespeare’s seizing on celebrated themes, without using them himself.
John causes their deaths by starving at the hands of Driver’s other persona, Will Brand the almost remorseless murderer. Gulliford’s dignified, spittingly defiant mother Lady Bruce and younger son (here a large doll) of Young Bruce. There’s an extraordinary epilogue to this,
Deidre Mullins first appears as Jenny, companion to Matilda/Marion, then enemy to the beleaguered heroine as jealous Queen Isabel. From gouging Matilda’s cheeks and being answered sweetly – again this forgiveness trope – she becomes a fast friend intent on saving her literally injured new friend. The dynamics between them are finely cast, nowhere more so than their final scene. Mullns later on fills in the under-developed Scathlock (a self-recommendingly knavish name) whilst moonlighting from Isobel.
Blake returns as the querulous Leicester, on the rebel side. As does Prowen as defiant Richmond, whilst Huband’s Mowbray knifes for the other side. One of the victims of Munday’s foul papers getting printed instead of the right ones, he gets two speeches and vanishes from the play.
What’s remarkable is that the denouement first shows vengeful young Bruce showing the assembled lords and John himself the result of his orders: Gulliford’s upright body with the doll’s. There’s a lengthy speech by Enoch’s Young Bruce about how each refused to eat the other. It’s otherwise acutely like that dead queen in The Revenger’s Tragedy – both derive from Spanish history. Since Middleton wrote his play around 1607 it’s very likely he was inspired by this scene.
Nash’s fate inevitably tops even this. With Gulliford now the treacherous Abbess she’s first assailed by John then Brand is dispatched to order her to drink poison.
Naturally everyone arrives a bit late, there’s another affecting scene of great power between the women and attendants: Matilda’s borne out in front of those grisly relics. Like the Prior earlier Munday shows a volte-face as Brand hangs himself out of remorse messily offstage. Munday’s played all along with Yuong Bruce as potential lover, so when he thinks he’s heard the worst the latest news is designed to cap this.
We end on a diminuendo: John promises some betterment at Isabel’s hands. Shakespeare at least ends with a death. Here we don’t even get lampreys with a side-order of poison and a bit of licence.
There’s some fine roles taken, with a natural flow, vocal evenness and sweep suggesting more than the normal rehearsal time: though it’s the quick chemistry of fine direction. Howarth, originally Little John morphs through Queen Elinor – sadly a rather cursory role here – through heroic Old Bruce and finally and best of all a lascivious self-delighting Monk bound to service a few nuns.
Prendergast, Tyrell and Nash as well as Wilkes confine themselves to single roles with vocal as well as characterful distinction, and Enoch’s roles are close enough as ingenuous noble-hearted hero for him to replicate Robin in Bruce with élan. Conlon-Morrey – whose Hubert is one given to the kind of commentary delighted in by Tuck – presides almost as a fruity-voiced voyeur. There’s not a weak link. A terrific revival with one scene bringing silence to an unusually lively audience, something close to tears.