Brighton Fringe 2021
Written and directed by John Knowles, with intro and outro Song by Bob Tipler, produced by Fetch Theatre with an Ironclad Creative New Writing Bursary Brighton Fringe 2021 Ironclad Bursary and mounted at Sweet Productions’ Old Steine Main venue. Lighting and Stage Management J D Henshaw and team. Till June 13th.
So there’s a sea chest with a double interior: one with a small model three-rig ship and shallow bottom where a pewter-acting (let’s say) jug of water can be poured to reflect the starlight pulsing from the open lid. The other au fond contains letters. A bundle and a flotilla of little airmail-blue ones. There’s a much larger model three-rig ship outside (as if the smaller one’s a Russian doll of it), a chair, some baccy, a brandy bottle and little more save a box of matches. Solo actor Patrick Kealey’s in red scarf, b/w sailor stripes, hitched cream linen trousers nearly up to his chest, a sea cap and white-bearded like the pard. Prepare for smoke blown into sails, or orifices.
Fiction Romance? It’s an odd title, if true for Shakespeare’s Antonio. Which one? Apart from the older one in The Tempest seemingly incapable of love. Interestingly the others are both gay and both suffer for love of a straight or straight-acting man who took a lot of money from them and ended up married to a rich woman. Did Shakespeare know someone? Did this happen, in some shadowy place, to the rich munificent Shakespeare himself?
So there’s Antonio’s Bassanio from The Merchant of Venice in 1597, and in 1601 our Antonio, not now a rich merchant but financially generous sea-captain, giving his wealth to sea-wracked penniless Sebastian, brother of Viola in Twelfth Night. And both Antonios place themselves at knife’s point for the man they love.
Scholars get very nervous about all this, try to explain being gay away altogether in the Renaissance, down to specific ‘acts’ people might just get down to faux de mieux or meouw (I’m too sexy for my cat). I mean great for gender fluidity, but like being gay got re-invented afterwards with Greek-reading Horace Walpole after not existing since Ancient Greece and a bit of Rome. Blame Strawberry Hill FFS.
So we’ll forget all that genteel homophobia (I’m being polite). Knowles sums this up: ‘For anyone who has ever sighed for their ‘Sebastian’ whoever they may be. Antonio is one of Shakespeare’s most openly gay characters, yet even he has to cloak his desires for the half-drowned Sebastian. In this post-Twelfth Night tale of Antonio’s life… the hidden desires of one man, a sailor and a dreamer who finds love, not in the tempestuous arms of a younger man, but with his own John Swann.’
Featuring Kealey with the intro and outro song by Bob Tipler, writer/director John Knowles presents a tour-de-force of an hour (forget the 45 minutes billed). It’s supported by an Ironclad Bursary, produced and mounted at Sweet Productions’ Old Steine Main venue. As we’ve seen, staging’s neatly consummate. There’s lighting and stage management from J D Henshaw and team.
Tonbridge-based, playwright/director/actor Kealey has a way with a beady Mariner’s eye, shifting his chair on a sudden, stalks and peers perhaps benignly at his guests, picks up a model ship with a glint as he puffs into its sails, stoops to launch a thousand… you’ll see. All in the Main’s small space. And possesses a voice that can growl or soar a high tenor, utterly penetrating, the kind you can tell was nurtured on Marlowe and Shakespeare (his time at mid-1970s Cambridge was spent on the serious footlights – not as it happened drama school), and his command of blank verse from Twelfth Night sashays back through colloquial (never shifting facile accents though), rasps against ‘arse’ but keeps sonance from politesse or sheer demotic.
It’s canny, too, recalling Genet’s pristine classical French prose describing sex or producing a ‘pearl’ fart. If Antonio can speak as he does in Twelfth Night, Knowles deduces there’s fathoms to his expressiveness and learning, as well as natural intelligence. Which is what we get here.
In a word Kealey keeps Antonio’s verbal integrity as a part of him even as he speculates on Olivia’s voluptuous older woman’s curves and how she displays her jewels: a portrait of Cougar-like sexual rapacity. Lucky straight-acting Sebastian? Just a word, a brief look at a stranger… and he’s hers. WTF?
And this is Antonio’s point, brought out by Knowles and Kealey. If Sebastian’s twin to Viola, they’re both pretty and pretty young, twenty or less. Olivia isn’t much older, but to jealous Antonio three to five years is a gulf (as it can be, if you’re less than sweet and twenty). Time and again Knowles presses incongruities, the rupture of Antonio’s love and Sebastian’s. But there’s something we’ll not know from Twelfth Night. OK rewind.
We learn much of Antonio’s voyages, though never his origins. Knowles again doesn’t create the false bottom of a backstory in the same way. He skims Antonio’s start, his Alpha-Omega embrace of the sea. Never learn to swim, you’ll take longer to die. Better the warm waters even with sharks though than the ice. One man they did rescue, but in his seconds snarled in rigging torn away by an iceberg, the man’s ice within, black-skinned; they wish him dead. Then there’s the sailor whom he dances with crying on his neck, but throws himself overboard.
So what happens when after a sea-mist – here Kealey has lit a pungent cigar, blows smoke over the billowing large model – you’re washed up? You find a beautiful blue-veined boy whom you save in the time-honoured way by blowing smoke between his buttocks (a graphic mine ensues). This loving act revives, you might say rectifies Sebastian. You know he’s not for you, not the John Swann you take in your arms. You wrest him to rose from blue, provision him and try to keep him from seeking – not wife or girl, but sister, OK – in one place, Illyria.
So when a sailor points out this other shore – not the difference, they’re not in Illyria – Sebastian must go there, though we know this means death at knife-point or noose-dangle for Antonio, noted falsely as a pirate aby ruler Orsino, ‘in the closet’ (that gets a laugh) over-thinking himself sweet on orphaned Olivia with a sort of Electra complex.
We get the plot through Antonio’s eyes, and it’s touching, wincingly funny, as you’ll find out. What isn’t related is what happens after. Antonio may find his John Swann, that elusive loving companion, or at least a few good nights. But is Sebastian merely unfeeling? Or capable of deep friendship, even love, though not the kind Antonio once longed for? And might it be enough?
It’s a beautifully redemptive tale, and makes us briefly happier for Antonio. Look out for that blue flotilla and what it wafts through as an exquisite ending. We need this back, to the heralding of a foghorn if not trumpets. Kealey’s the ideal interpreter of this deeply-wrought, yet respectful riposte to those occasional loose endings of genius. It’ll be the way to think of Twelfth Night’s Antonio, on those nights you wonder at his now less desolate return to his element.