FringeReview UK 2016
Read Not Dead rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts on Sunday morning, and enact at four p.m. Director Nick Hutchison assembles a superb Sunday ensemble including Tim McInnerny, Fenella Woolgar Alison Skilbeck and Bruce Alexander for this Globe Wannamaker Read Not Dead performance of Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Coxcomb from 1608-10.
Director Nick Hutchison assembles a superb Sunday ensemble including Tim McInnerny, Fenella Woolgar Alison Skilbeck and Bruce Alexander for this Globe Wannamaker Read Not Dead performance of Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Coxcomb from 1608-10. It’s one of their finest, a sparkling yoke of two love-plots involving feminism and sexual freedom unparalleled in the period’s comedy. Read Not Dead rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts on Sunday morning, and enact at four p.m.
The plays themselves as Read Not Dead suggests, are Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years. The Coxcomb has fared somewhat better, but this might be its sole incarnation for some time – unless as is hoped its dramatic worth is recognized by someone in the audience with enough vision and production heft to take it further.
To take the straightforward plot first: Viola (Leah Whitaker) escapes her father’s house to rendezvous with Vince Leigh’s ardent Ricardo. Unfortunately meeting with boon companions Ricardo gets so drunk – a rowdy roll on the Wannamaker stage here, with bottles and boy – that he’s calling for whores by the time Viola stumbles across him, lucky to escape affront herself. Having thrown her key back into her father’s house she’s no way but an Imogen-like traversal of harsh weather, set upon by thieves, rescued by an equivocal Valerio (a superbly louche reluctantly decent James Wallace) and set upon again by amicable feminist separatist milkmaids who take her in.
Their harsh mistress Alison Skilbeck’s Mother is mother to more than the other lover of the plot, Mercury, but her house is the focus of unravelment: Act V’s reckoned to be all Beaumont so fretted with rich poetic imagery – he too carried the Viola/Ricardo plot where the sexier one by some way is that of said Mercury’s Ben Deery and his friend Antonio’s wife Maria (Fenella Woolgar).
Tim McInnerny’s rich bluster of Antonio – the nominal Coxcomb or fool of the plot, but there are several – loves the reluctant Mercury. So well in fact that when the latter realising his attraction to Maria tries to leave, then confesses his love hoping for banishment, finds Antonio ready to give him his wife. Antonio dresses as an Irishman to effect this with a forged letter ‘from’ Mercury, but Maria, the best-rounded portrait of the play, not only sees through Antonio, but has him trussed up and thrown into a cellar; and decides after all the young man’s worth having. Not before she and the plot have tested him though. As she expresses it, Mercury is:
The honesest man that ever was enticed
To that sweet sin, as people please to call it,
Of lying with another’s wife, and I,
I think the honestest woman, without blushing,
That ever lay with another man.
McInnerny’s buffoonery is a realised thing – as indeed is his cod-Irish and London cabby accents, improbable talents required by the plot. Woolgar’s Maria is fantastically vital: mock-angry, welcoming, coquettish, frankly sexual and above all witty and counter-plotting her husband’s absurd effrontery, that she should be won by Mercury through his offices. Her decision to have Mercury for herself is the pivotal freedom on which satellites of other feminine bids spin: the man-foreswearing milkmaids, the scolding Mother (Skillbeck a superb study of harsh but halfway honest hypocrisy), most touchingly Viola’s scurry through danger. As Ricardo says finally: ‘Tis my belief, that women want but ways/To praise their deeds, but men want deeds to praise.’
Naturally a vanishing husband calls forth charges of murder, and Bruce Alexander’s very shallow Justice is vexed that Antonio’s cousin Curio (who’s not seen Antonio for years so the disguise holds) merely comes for him as ‘the nearest’. His determination to hang someone soon becomes almost endearing, his reasons an inchoate sense of his own irrelevance. Alexander’s portrait is full of hesitations and footling vanities, and the havering over ‘nearest’ brought the house down. Though a smallish part and late coming it’s a gem of legal obtuseness where Curio dispatches all in a brisk summary.
Naturally from the point of arrest for murder denouements must unravel. Mercury’s equivocally foresworn returning to bed with Maria, but I wonder what an immersive consideration of that might do to the unbelievable ‘I have lost that passion’. It seems the far older Antonio might want his wife entertained by his reluctant friend and Maria would certainly entertain. There’s more than scope for it.
Viola’s under the same roof but finds Ricardo led through Valerio’s help. Before that one of those moments come when as with Shakespeare, a single line resonates with news of today. Before Ricardo finds Viola he chides Valerio to find two more men as knavish as themselves then
… every one has treachery enough
For twenty countries: One should trouble Asia;
Another should sow strife in Africa;
but you should play the knave at home in Europe;
and, for America, let me alone.
It can be well imagined that last line trumped the evening with the recent American election results clangoured in everyone’s ears; there had to be the smallest pause. Asia also reappears with its pampered Jades intact, a steal from Tambourlaine, and homage surely to Marlowe – whose College (Corpus Christi, Cambridge) Fletcher also attended.
McInnerny, Alexander, Woolgar, Skilbeck as indicated all revel in the play’s textures. Whitaker’s is an ardent warmly projected performance wholly believable too, and Deery’s Mercury winningly shows a brain-beating clever young man whose decency is seduced by Woolgar’s greater and slinkier sense of what’s honourable. Leigh’s Ricardo carries a fine ardent panache – there’s an occasional line dip of energy since he runs at such high voltage and matches Whitaker in warmth and appeal.
The whole cast though are uniformly exuberant: Crispin Hunt, Mary Field’s reluctant thief Tinker, David Meyer’s Andrugio (Viola’s reconciled father), Charlotte Newton-John’s dea-ex-machina relative Curio and thieving whore Dorothy, Emma Denly’s pert and sparkling Alexander, Scottish servant to Mercury’s Mother, Tori Walker and Aruhan Galieva and Hannah Parker (Nan and Madge the separatist milkmaids)
This performance is dedicated to Maggy Williams, who was responsible for the programme writing of Read Not Dead set up by Director of Globe Education Patrick Spottiswoode. Maggy wrote nearly all programme notes between 1995-2009, who as her husband David says ‘delivered some of the Sunday classes and attended almost every one of the readings, relishing performance discussions with the actors.’ Many of the cast, director and Director of Education knew Maggy and worked with her extensively. I only knew her in the later part of her life, but still feel brushed by a great theatrical vision.
Echoing the ensemble’s collective way with the prologue at the opening, and following McInnerny’s solo epilogue, a second epilogue in heroic couplets is recited by actors in turn. It’s a heartfelt witty tribute to Maggy Williams: it was good to see David Williams acknowledging the applause from stage and audience alike.