FringeReview UK 2016
Read Not Dead rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts on Sunday morning, and enact at four p.m, or later, now in the Wannamaker. Chris Brill directs actors led by Joseph Kloska in the title part for The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck.
Chris Brill directs a Sunday scratch of distinguished actors led by Joseph Kloska in the title part for The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck, a play T. S. Eliot reckoned should be regularly revived. It’s certainly a familiar title, appearing in the Penguin Ford Three Plays. Read Not Dead rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts on Sunday morning, and enact at four p.m, now in the Wannamaker.
It’s curious, that since this programme has revived readings of pre-Commonwealth plays since 1995, Perkin Warbeck is itself a true revival from another age of forty years earlier. Ford’s 1634 prologue points out: ‘Studies have of this nature been of late/ So out of fashion, so unfollowed…’ An unfashionable history then, or its subtitle A Strange Truth. It tells history slant too, omitting Warbeck’s confession of guilt in not being the younger of the two Princes in the tower, but a Dutchman. It’s openly admitted in dedicatory verses by one George Crymes, commending Ford’s crowning Warbeck ‘of new’. Warbeck never was crowned. What is being signalled?
Nevertheless Chris Brill’s clean direction paradoxically brings about the dramatized reading of one of the better-read plays of the series: it was published in 1971 alongside ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Broken Heart, instead of their companion in the original 1633 volume – the recently-revived Love’s Sacrifice, itself un-staged since the 1660s. Perkin Warbeck is often ranked with these other two and T. S. Eliot – who sniffed at Love’s Sacrifice – ranks this highest. One can see his point and wonder why it’s in the Read Not Dead series and not fully staged in the Wannamaker instead. It was revived by the RSC in 1975.
One reason Ford revived a genre ennobling Warbeck as at least believing himself Richard IV, in the most Shakespearean language he ever wrote, isn’t far to seek. Dating from around 1633, its examination of a partly un-kingly Henry VII and a kingly pretender might excite those under a prorogued parliament Charles I had put on ice since 1629 in a bid for absolutism. Though it can’t yet be a republican play, the notion of which wasn’t yet dreamt of, it questions the automatic and divine right of dynasties, striking at the heart of Charles’s self-belief.
Beyond the Fringe in Jonathan Miller’s ‘Hie-thee-to-Lancaster,-Warwick’ mode, references one Ford homage to Shakespeare but is confined to the opening. Language is more deeply engaged with that heritage: consistently inventive, inspired with fragile tropes like ‘crossing the sea in an eggshell’, fitted to characters, particularly Warbeck but also Henry VII, who breathes gilt tropes of money and contingency, referring without irony to ‘a guard of angels’ a kind of coin, and that ‘Money gives soul to action.’
Perkin Warbeck can’t by his nature develop in the play. One might imagine the late Michael Williams in this enthusiast’s role leading a cast of fourteen (as here) or the full eighteen. Joseph Kloska’s self-belief is palpable, really a performance, winning Lady Katherine’s hand, taken with cameo authority by Serena Jennings. Henry VII’s Daniel Weyman brings a counting-house hesitation to a monarch who havers Lord Stanley’s death and everywhere urges mercy, reproved by courtiers, succumbing occasionally to petulance. For instance Henry bids his army to let the fleeing opposition go: they’re merely wrong, but his subjects, damn it. Warbeck too claims this at the siege of Berwick, where second-hearted James IV who till now supported him (a smiling, watchful Alec Newman), realizes with canny tacking from Theo Fraser Steele’s Spanish Hialas, he must cut Warbeck loose. James too quietly radiates realpolitik: excited by Warbeck, he’s ruled by Henry’s coming from the same tiny class as himself.
Nigel Cooke switches between smooth Lord Dawbney and treacherous Frion, betraying Warbeck with smarm and oil. Clive Brill, Hugh Ross, and Stuart McGugan inhabit troubled majesties of rank; Dominic Rye raises a touch of stoic nobility as loyal seneschal to Lady Katherine.
Pride perhaps falls on the Earl of Huntly’s role. Christian Rodska exudes love baffled with ambition, where a wily but good man outfoxes himself. He manoeuvres daughter Katherine from the decent Daliel to higher things, perhaps James IV: but she and James fall for Warbeck and she’s prepared to foreswear father and homeland. The suddenly isolated Rodska extends empathy to one of the finest would-be-benign patriarchs of the genre; the final father-daughter scene truly affects. It seals the proof that Eliot was right: it’s the finest non-Shakespearean history play of the whole Elizabethan-to-Caroline canon.