FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by Deidre Mulins. Read Not Dead rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. This first of four pre-Shakespearean plays from the 1580s. Before Shakespeare is an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project.
The Before Shakespeare summer season of four plays from the 1580s continues with Anthony Munday’s 1584 Fedele and Fortunio. Read Not Dead Wanamaker Globe series RND actor regular Deidre Mullins here makes a very auspicious directorial debut with a crackpot chamber-pot-paced play where tossing urine out of windows is part of a gentlewoman’s activity.
There’s certainly rougher vigour than you might expect and this play’s a fascinating glimpse into a world where Munday’s less decorous values bridged to Shakespeare, who learned so much from him in form and bed-tricks with elements here prophesying The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado and Measure for Measure. Not for nothing did the diarist Francis Meres who first told us of Love’s Labours Won denote Munday ‘our best plotter’.
The 1580s and 90s were a melting pot where five unfamiliar new buildings arose: commercial playhouses. We’ve very few texts from this period – this is only the fifth – yet what we have throw startling light on later texts, including Shakespeare’s late Romance plays. It’s an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project.
As Read Not Dead suggests, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for over 400 years are dedicated to dragging plays out of a quattrocento sleep. This one is 433 years old.
Mullins knows what’s she’s about as a director. She reads the prologue with ringing assurance too. What treats she’s planned for a few particular scenes though is worth recording.
Munday’s language here is fascinating. We’re on the cup of standard early modern, and wise saws and modern versification jar with arcane inversions and couplets versed in awkward brilliance. There’s a particularly telling sue of tennis balls ‘on the double rebound’ used about lovers taking a twice-sworn lover. Flickers of this kind of brilliance show us a dramatist different from some other pre-Shakespeareans.
It’s almost a street scene play, so we see or perhaps hear new lovers having sex, a variety of humiliations overheard conversations in the lee of a temple and so on. the dramatic space uses the notion of public accountability and revelation to counter its anarchic elements as well as aid them.
We’re treated to Patrick Walshe McBride’s handsome haplessness as Fortnio, where he vigorously pursues a foresworn woman, Victoria ‘girl of my best friend’ as the perennial song has it. His friend Fedele’s an Italian gentleman who returns from a journey to Spain to recover his lands. Rhys Bevan provides lively stentorian tripped-up heldentenor antics, often rebuffed in his dignity.
The pair match each other well vocally though Fedele gets the lion’s share of comic misery, and an unexpected ‘Alas’ repeated to audience laughter when an untoward noise emits from next to him sat in the audience – another feature of this production. There’s scenes where audience members for instance have to restrain him, another when the contents of an audience’s handbag make a fine inventory of simples and spells.
He finds his lover Victoria’s fallen in love with Fortunio who loves her in his turn. He takes refuge in the traditional wailing only shocked out of it by the verbal density of his schoolmaster Pedante’s Latin. We’d say tutor a few decades on: but this is pre-Grand Tour. John Hopkins as ever graces his part with baritonal weight and a comical glint in his frequently startled eyes. What he manages with his schoolmaster’s gown denotes the twenty ways you can humiliate yourself or others, cover faces, show astonished sexual delight and flick menace. That gown gets a workout. Hopkins shines but always illuminates his sparring partners, whose robust identities her show no dull links at all.
You’d think that was all but welcome to the double plot. Fortunio is unsure of Victoria’s love and in fact the play opens with his asking an opportunist self-called Captain Crackstone (Ryan Early) to investigate this, though rough-voiced Crackstone is himself secretly in love with Victoria. He’s stolen a dead captain’s rig and early makes much of mispronouncing words though some of them are common tongue lie ‘doth’ ad ‘troth’.
Victoria in her turn – somewhat cold to the returned Fedele but frightened to turn on him – is unsure of Fortunio’s love for her. Emma Denly in fact plays Victoria with a gnawing vixenish restraint, using her license at crucial moments only.
Victoria employs Medusa a sorceress to enchant Fortunio into loving her. Suzanne Ahmet’s Medusa is a delight, dramatic in her pantaloons she saws the air with extravagant monologues and handles Munday’s language with mastery. In her invocation there’s a pre-echo here of something we know:
A wanton’s Goates braine,
and the Liver of a purple Doove.
A Cockes eye, and a Capons spurre,
the left legge of a Quaile:
a Ganders tung, a mounting Eagles tayle.
Shakespeare has read Munday well. The great scene of bin-bagged Medusa and Victoria and her maid Attilia, chanting with a waxen doll with great shoes and a Fortunio head has to be a highlight. Labelled with his name and Victoria’s we see Pednate on the one hand and Crackstone on the other startled by such rites Crackstone indeed catching a lighted candle in his mouth. Pedante interrupts to voluble screams. It’s the best set scenes in RND I’ve seen.
Fedele’s Pedante, and Victoria’s maid, Attilia the sparky and comic Emily Tucker are thus brought into the plot on either side. To seduce Attilia to his wishes Pedante mimics love then genuinely falls for Attilia and the interval has the sexually disheveled Pedante stagger on to announce it before being dragged off again.
It’s through another street scene we see Denly’s Attilia meet Rosalind Steele’s Pamphila, maid to another character Virginia. Rachel Winters’ ardent Virginia is still in love with Fedele who jilted her, and Fortunio turns his attentions on her after he’s persuaded falsely that Victoria has betrayed him – machinations by Fedele here. It’s Crackstone who gets a crack on the head here from Victoria, a pisspot emptied ingeniously with fragments of yellow cascading all around. Pedante’s and Fedele’s forgiveness of Crackstone (caught in a net all helmed up from propos) who’s actually been employed by the terrified Victoria to kill Fedele somehow dissolves only at points where Pedante touches him or puts an arm around the sodden man and realizes he really shouldn’t. This is excellent, first-rate Globe knockabout Early and Hopkins relishing their theatrical ugh.
There follow further entanglements and misadventures, including Fortunio and Medusa working out a plot to mock-seduce Virginia to bring everything to light though not impugn Virginia’s honour (Ottaviano’s Virginia’s father David Meyer explodes for a few brief candles) we’re treated to the delicate Plan A and B Medusa treats of: the first ideally doesn’t involve magic and thus justifies everything else. The play ends happily…. well spoiler alert for the sake of the record:
Fortunio marries Virginia with further same-day marriages announced between Fedele and Victoria, Crackstone and (the initlaly very sisaapointed) Attilia, and Pedante and Medusa. Class marries class, and skill, skill, though one feels the two main couple might have remained happier the other way round and oen feels sorry for Attilia. But then Medusa’s Pedante’s match. And the witch too ends happily, for not having used sorcery to obtain her ends.
James Wallace deviser of RND stratagems gets his chance with a net too. Sbirri Captain of the watch Tok Stephen has to bring order out of the whole-cast melee and gets a good sustained crack at the epilogue too. Steele and winters revel another trick, their violins for a Renaissance Scottish reel dance-off.
One of the funniest, uniformly excellent productions of RND I’ve seen, it shows that Mullins enjoys a keen sense of pace, superb comic improvisation in scenes with a few props, and does what this pre-Shakespearean series claims: makes new what is in effect new to us, recreating plays from rags and patches of performing history.