FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by James Wallace. 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.
This is the last of the four 1580s plays mounted in conjunction with the Before Shakespeare conference which took place from 25 – 26 August.
The Globe Wanamaker’s Read Not Dead Before Shakespeare summer season of four plays from the 1580s concludes here. It’s John Lyly’s 1584 Sappho and Phao. Or ‘Sapho’. Lyly’s the most famous of these earlier pre-Shakespeareans, and his ‘patterned prose’ as Dr Lucy Munro calls it, is something at least known, bracketed with fellow court writer George Peele and pored over by students. It’s tougher than the tissue of filigree compliments and allegory of the Queens’ renunciation of love it delicately shadows. And in this performance, far more interesting too.
RND regular James Wallace here directs a fine melancholy out of veiled compliments. 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.
For a start Wallace introduces two Prologues himself: a Blackfriars and Court one, both published in two editions. The Blackfriars with its apiary and vivid imagery is engaging, though when Wallace bends his knee for the Monarch to deliver the second, you sense a gear-change in allusiveness and subtlety. It’s a special moment: language twists in a cultural shift, from lawyers and students to courtiers (in one sense, their elder selves).
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 fourth or fifth – yet what we have throws startling light on later texts, including Shakespeare’s late Romance plays. It’s an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project; each performance revivifies these apparently more fragile confections (and yes there’s chocolate). You’re confronted with an explosive mix: plays involving bloody broils and comedies where low and high status figures jostle.
Usually they just jostle. Here a queen and commoner fall in love, impossibly. Whatever courtly compliments might be intended, we’ve left them behind: there’s nothing quite like this in the period. Especially since the story Lyly took from Ovid’s original was based on a quasi-historical courtesan Sappho and no bar existed. Here, no-one discovers the ferryman Phao is really a frog prince.
Sappho and Phao is generally reckoned an allegory on the Queen’s final renunciation of the Duke d’Anjou, her Frog. If so, the plot’s curious. Emma Pallant’s finely-arched retrograde Venus, so to speak, frustrated and – Lyly cruelly ignoring the rule that gods don’t age – furious at her advancing years decides to torture the beautiful Sapho Queen of Syracuse. Easy, casually beautify Phao the local ferryman. It’s the only time Venus doesn’t resort to deploying her wayward son Cupid and his arrows.
Dark-shades RND regular James Askill isn’t just a proto-Puck, confusing his love-dipped sagittary. He’s about to outrage Venus even more than falling in love with someone like Psyche. Dangerously, he can be seduced by Ferrero Rocher on a chaise-long. Everything hinges on the way Cupid stuffs himself and draws out his noes.
For running commentary worldly Trachinus (Alex Mugnaioni) and scholarly Pandion (Oliver Bennett, another RND stalwart) traipse in Sapho’s wake, with their men Pandion’s Molus (Lee Wan, wallowing in a repine) and Trachinus’ man Criticus, where Rowan Williams lives up to his carping name. The bounce and verve of this middling-fortune quartet presages city comedies and bringing in Vulcan’s dull-wit apprentice Calipho (James Thorne) as the Third Man as it were ensures not only a clutch of catches raucously bashed on bits of Vulcanology (impressive hobnails and a tin-kit) – as well as Calipho’s dunned wits – but bustles into very different language tempos. Lyly’s not strong on plot, but his slice of London is as authentic as a prentice boy’s riot.
Patrick Walshe McBride another RND regular flowers as soft-voiced Phao, moving through Phao’s monologues with a fresh thoughtfulness that’s winsome and winning, particularly in his exchanges with Emma Denly’s Sapho and even the amorous Pallant. He’s aware ‘Who climbeth, standeth on glass and falleth on thorn…. Envy never casteth her eye low, ambition pointeth always upward, and revenge only barketh at stars.’
No wonder Venus marks him out, but Phao’s conduct is infinitely more courtly than any man (there aren’t many, admittedly) or indeed anyone but Sapho herself.
He’s helped here by the appearance of Sybilla, and Selina Cadell simply takes up the production in a seraphically voiced delivery that rivets attention to everything she orates, everything she augurs to the callow but swiftly wise Phao. ‘What shall become of me?’ he quizzes Sybilla. ‘Go dare’ she flings down his fate. Urging the habitual careworn admonitions she delivers her own story, whose morals are: don’t mess with gods, and gods mess with mortals in ways you’d not imagine. Phao makes several trips, since after the first he’s crashed straight into Sapho and their looks go everywhere.
It helps that Emma Denly can sing too, here taking the noble obverse to her role in Anthony Munday’s Fidele and Fortunio and its would-be-faithless Victoria. Here she teeters on voicing the words to give herself to Phao, and he withholds the triggers to allow her to. It’s the tenderest moment, bar perhaps those with Phao and Sybilla. Sapho’s allowed comedy though, swooning like Lydia Languish for all sorts of simples and herbs only Phao can bring.
That’s not before the ladies-in-waiting have drunk their fill of lust and comedy. One of the delights of this work is the badinage it affords a large female cast (boys originally) said to balance the brawny wars of surrounding entertainments. Bella Heesom as chief Melita exudes a slinky head girl gone to the bad, needling Eleanor Williams’ spirited charitable Ismena, Amy Tobias’ appealing Eugenua, Natalie Graham’s languorous Lamia, Lucy-Rose Leonard’s sharp-witted ingénue Favilla. It’s Eugenua who reminds the soured Melita – Phao’s quietly turned the latter down – ‘Yet we, when we swear with our mouths we are not in love, then we sigh from the heart and pine in love.’
Most of all there’s Melita’s match: Canope cuts across Melita’s caustic sexiness We recently saw Suzanne Ahmet as a fine Medusa in Fidele and Fortunio (alongside Denly) and here in her smaller role she’s every bit as spark-filled as when loading potions.
Venus cuts herself on her two-edged son though. Ordering Cupid unambiguously to ‘pierce’ Sapho she rails ‘Draw thine arrow to the head, else I will make thee repent it at the heart.’ But Sapho’s stuffed him with Ferero Rocher after tossing and turning all over her chaise. Things go awry.
Venus for one has fallen for Phao herself, so off falls her Sybilla-lite role with Sapho, whom she visits like a courtly elder sister – Venus’ mingling with mortals here is a remarkable feature – and plots venomously. Poor despised Vulcan – Tim Frances reprising a character he took in The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune – brims arrows with his Cyclops so these can be launched by Cupid. Cupid however only delivers half his quiver, then really surprises.
It’s for Sybilla to conclude: ‘we fear we have… now brought you to an end, where we first began.’ If there’s a touch of Puck in these proceedings the end is a diminuendo version of Love’s Labours Lost, and certainly this play was widely available for others to take hints from.
It’s the conversations that make this courtly piece delectable, as well as hints taken by others – and indeed not taken. Language is smoother, less Janus-faced than some of this period. Less archaisms, more flinty repartees allow several airborne performances. McBride’s Phao exudes a baffled heroism, Denly frustrated nobility, whilst Pallant, Askill, and Ahmet draw rich readings as does nearly everyone in the cast. It’s Cadell though who seals the quality of this revival. Her magically inflected words occasion a running benediction; it’s fitting she centres the curtain-call.