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 Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd was directed by James Wallace. The next RND is on Sunday September 29th at the Wanamaker, Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of the Earl of Huntingdon.
The strangest thing about this latest installment of Read Not Dead’s Robin Hood season is not that’s it’s unfinished, but that it fits so well. Ben Jonson’s not a byword for pastoral, even with his masques; and The Sad Shepherd isn’t chocked with city-pent wit.
But this final play does contain a wonderful song. And we remember the pastoral in Jonson’s poetry, the country house poems; hear the language crossed-hatched with different registers, but bursting with Jonsonian character. This production of Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd was directed by James Wallace who also appears in it. There’s some draped greenery but otherwise the best props are… Brillo pads.
The Sad Shepherd, or The Tale of Robin Hood will always delight and perplex with its run-mad lovers and shape-shifting witches; and their trouser-ferreted sons. It’s not typical of Jonson, let alone his last phase. There’s no stiffening here; it’s both the most emotionally present of his works, indeed extreme in feeling, and probing new types.
Traditional critics (Cambridge History of English and American Literature, 1907-21) suggest Jonson couldn’t have written so vigorous a play when he did, but alarmed by its inspired verse, couldn’t sustain it. A dates after 1618’s suggested: despite prefatory verses stating Jonson’s been 40 years before the public. The settled opinion suggests 1637 saw a last idyllic flare-up of the dramatist’s powers.
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.
It’s started off by Sam Cox’s Alken the narrational sage who speaks the prologue. Though Rhys Bevan as Robin Hood and his Marion (Bella Heesom) both present a robust, warmly confident, sexy front (they’re often in each other’s arms) they’re the foils and rescuers to two couples who’ve been unfortunate enough to fall into the spells of Joanne Howarth’s magnificently former-hippy-in-green, Maudlin the Envious witch.
Howarth’s very funny too, and ad-libbing enough so that when sent flat on her back emits ‘blimey’ to roars. She never overdoes cackles, and Jonson’s humour is well served because the one person in the cast who hasn’t appeared by the play’s breaking-off is Reuben the Reconciler: so no-one’s hauled off at the end. Maybe there’s a feast.
First Maudlin takes on Marion’s shape so Heesom impersonates the witch impersonating Marion with steely unpleasantness: take that great big deer over to Maudlin’s. The whole clutch, John Gregor’s Friar Tuck, Elliot Fitzpatrick’s religiously challenged Little John, Adam Cunis luckless Scathlock the dour efficient hunter tasked with lugging the deer over to Maudlin and back again, director James Wallace as George A Greene and James Askill’s Much. Watch out for Askill in another guise. Guests include the strong-voiced James Bradwell as Clarion the Rich (he is clarion too, with a wool-sack on his head), Tok Stpehen’s Lionel, Alken, Æglamour and Karolin (more fo them anon).
But Maudlin’s struck before the start. The eponymous Sad Shepherd – Oliver Bennett’s explosive Æglamour – is as Tom Lockwood points out in his notes, almost Hamlet-like in distraction, though more conventionally so: he really fears his love Earine has drowned, though unlike Ophelia this isn’t the case.
The Sad Shepherd Æglamour intones haunting lyricism in lines like these:
She’s stuck in an oak, and Lucy-Rose Leonard’s Earine is prey to Cunis’s other part, Lorel. It’s a comically hapless part Cunis relishes.
Lorel attempts to woo with a brock or badger – a teddy bear; two Brillo pads do for hedgehogs, and a long wooden spoon for that trousered ferret. He’s hurt she wants none of them or him and closes the central door (aka oak tree). And there’s Douce the daughter, Anna-Kate Golding’s ‘the Prud’ disconsolate sulky young woman whom you feel might be happy to find a suitor somehow.
Elsewhere Earine’s brother Karolin (‘that’s a girl’s name’ Tok Stephen, brother of Amy ad-libs as Lionel) is dragged by distrait Æglamour to kiss Amy, who’s struck almost dumb, despite the ministrations of Emily Tucker’s brief winning portrayal fo wamr =hearted Mellifleur ‘the sweet’ as Jonson subtitles everyone in case you missed it. Karolin, who sings beautifully to Amy later, and turns in a winningly airborne performance, suddenly discovers his feelings, awakened are mutual only when Amy’s put under a spell by Maudlin. Amy’s not above a few mute lines:
|the dear good angel of the spring,|
That’s pretty sophisticated, but curiously Shakesperean.
It’s Alken who works out how to hunt witches, and there’s a whiff of earlier Jacobean witch-hunting rendered less harmful.
Alken’s speech begins ‘Within a gloomy dimble she doth dwell,’ is again almost Shakesperean, echoed by his later speech:
A second spell as pseudo-Marion has Heesom chased off stage and Howarth returning without her magic belt. Trounced here, there’s people to un-spell and discover, and that’s nearly where we break off.
Askill’s Puck-Hairy bounces on to rescue Maudlin, and their resolve is almost the end, in Act 3 Scene 5. But there’s a resumé of Act 4, which takes us to further tricks and a lack of resolution. Enter, we hope Reuben.
One linguistic register – especially some of the blank verse – is more lyrical though shot through with Jonsonian wit particularly with the witch, her son and her bad fairy. More though it rings with Shakesperean density at times, particularly with the eponymous Shepherd.
Despite the occasional sense of bittiness the text leaves, this is a compelling piece projecting its own world, and presented here in a thoroughly idiomatic manner with opportunities seized on by the cast. A necessary production you’re unlikely ever to see anywhere else.