FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by Perry Mills Thomas Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament Globe Wannamaker is a full-scale production which joins the earlier Nashe and the four read Not Dead plays of this season. Curated by Professor Andrew Hadfield and Professor Jenny Richards, it’s part of the Before Shakespeare season, specifically the Thomas Nashe Project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It’s enwrapped in a score composed by recent old boys Sam Bridges and Joe Woodman Costumes by Company and RSC neighbours, with Brenda Leedham. Lighting’s by John Cherry and Phil Miles working beyond the Wannamaker candles.
It might be Summer’s Last Will and Testament, but whether Summer’s or Will Summers Henry VIII’s fool, is a riddling not only Nashe but the superb Edward’s Boys from King Edward VI School Stratford determine on our guessing. This production directed by Perry Mills runs at Croydon and here one night at the Wanamaker Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe. Croydon? Corydon? There’s Archbishop Whitgift’s Croydon Palace, where the prelate endured as many risqué jokes about Eliza that Nashe could make without a whipping or hanging. This extraordinary farrago self-interrupts a pageant, halts its own masque and ends a muted tragic laugh with death: ‘I am sick, I must die.’
Out of this jest ‘Brightness falls from the air/Queens have died young and fair.’ If that sounds like the opening of Henry VI Part I it should for we now know Nashe wrote the first act. By the time we get to these lines, the effect is devastating.
It’s a full production too, the musicians adding zest and poignancy in a score composed by recent old boys Sam Bridges and Joe Woodman. From an eerie violin played by one boy winding round an ailing figure, we’re treated to lusty choruses in th gallery, violin ensembles sounding like viols, and riotous assemblies of instruments shadowing voices. Most haunting, boys at strategic points in the audiences galleries switch on lights – John Cherry and Phil Miles render magic elsewhere too – and sing a glow-worm chorus of death.
The costumes are quite simply the most elaborate and stunning I’ve seen here, from the Company and RSC neighbours, with Brenda Leedham much in evidence as wig-master. Will Summer’s green and scarlet jester’s apparel marks an entré to emblematic suits of summer full of straw hair and Winter’s Elizabethan physician in black cap and gown, to Back-winter’s surplices, Solstitium’s dodder of off-white wig and gown shrouding its protagonist, Sol’s twin sets of sunglasses and Seventies flame hair, Orion’s hunting pink Tory, to the emblematic dressing of the chorus in sheaths of harvest or bright weeds of spring, on the traces of Vertumnus’ techni-coloured dreamcoat.
Nashe, already seen in May, in his protean Terrors of the Night proves in this slightly earlier work from 1592 that he was the fulcrum of his time. He determined the way modern prose went; he wrote so much of it. He was sometimes a very fine poet; wrote masque and drama, much of which is being unearthed in others’ work. Not only Henry VI/I but much of Edward IIII which Shakespeare collaborated in as well as Thomas Kyd, is now attributed to Nashe.
Curated by Professor Andrew Hadfield and Professor Jenny Richards, it’s part of the Before Shakespeare season, specifically the Thomas Nashe Project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council; each performance revivifies the 1580s and 1590s apparently more fragile confections.
Shakespeare took much from Nashe, but what’s most creative is the routes Nashe indicated and others didn’t take: genres hardened. This extraordinary work, a masque where Summer decides whom to bequeath his accrued bounty, turns into a profound meditation on mortality, the plague bursting in on 1592 and – bursting like ripe grenades – possibility. Nashe’s inventions remained inordinate and alone. It’s taken over four centuries to catch up with him.
After Dominic Howden’s Dick Huntley shoos himself off and on stage in a neatly choreographed panic, Dan Power’s 1592 stand-up blasts in with northern skirling to feast on our vowels. ‘I am a goose, or a ghost at least, for what with turmoil of getting my fool’s apparel, and care of being perfect, I am sure I have not yet supped tonight. Will Summer’s ghost I should be’ and punning, suppers, laundry and Power’s remarkable gift of sitting next to most of the audience over the evening has sprung as it were to autumn.
His is a virtuoso display of timing character and superb confidence as fine as any like part taken at the Globe. Far from disrupting which he does, Power links us throughout, anchors us like a contemporary TV placeman to the bewildering varieties of action.
Power’s figure of the 1530s jester who disrupts the mock-medieval mock-pagan pageant reminds us there’s paganism to be pointed up and Papism to be pointed down like an inverted fool’s cap. Vestigial bits of clerisy hang about Nashe’s work, with jibes meant for the Anglicans dressed as anti-Papist – we’re reminded Nashe might have written some of the comic prelate scenes in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, just so you know his reach. ‘God forgive me, I did not see my Lord before’ Power bursts out wide-eyed and that’s Whitgift guyed.
Then it’s Nashe’s turn. He’s written a Latin-stuffed Prologue – we’ve been basted with Latin and helpful glosses, a habit we’re dyed in by the end. Nashe revels in guying himself, both with tedious saws and ancient instances – and racy prose. ‘The little minutes will be continually striking, though no man regard them.’ That’s the pith of this work, and we don’t regard it in the burly push-past of prose and actors. ‘Why, he hath made a prologue longer than his play’ Will Summer crumples the paper, and though we do get extempore, references to Lidl, they’re very few; this is mostly Nashe and we get 85-90% of the original too.
Rory Gopsill is the second outstanding performance of the evening. ‘Summer I was. I am not what I was.’ It’s a curious argument. Summer ‘died I had indeed unto the earth/But that Eliza…. Forbade the execution of my fate/Until her joyful progress was expired.’ It’s like being kept painfully alive when you’re disintegrating into wheat chaff and dust.
In a rasping baritonal curse he staggers on as Summer – Nashe intended the double-take and double-entendre. Unlike Power Godspill embodies the dying season, unwillingly, bitterly bestowing his fortune on a successor, and only Autumn and Winter are candidates. In a alter Q&A it came out that the more the Company studied what should have been a conciliatory act, it darkened to bitterness. What we now receive is discomfiting Nashean perhaps, authentic.
Gopsill’s stentorian command as he stoops to conquer his legatees is memorable not just for his entrances – he’s once taken off in a wheelbarrow, emblematically for burning – but sneer of cold command. Like burnt stubble, his feet are being held over the fire, it feels. Gopsill’s broken strut and frozen facials shudder and flail.
Jack Hawkins’ Autumn in schoolboy scarf tipped for September is yet another huge presence, both cumulatively present in a less strident way than the two Summers, but more plangent. His is the exceptional singing voice one remembers later when several are called to that, and his resonance and mellow reasonableness executing his office of inheritor build impressively.
George Ellingham’s Winter has at first less to do but makes up for this in his black-capped wintry stillness and a superb twelve-minute speech. Ellingham brings to this icicled conscience of a part a sad pallid truth, something of what he too must in turn give on to, his two sons later.
Pascal Vogiaridis’ Vertumnus is the first tickle of the seasons to get up Summer’s nose: it’s a part of mild petulance and a riot of colour and abundance. This is curiously nothing to the purpose. ‘Ver, lusty Ver’ gets the ’spring, sweet spring’ song blasted by the chorus, praise from Will Summer but after badinage and a Morris and hobby-horse dance a winter blast of condemnation by Summer. Ver’s language is chocked with repetitions like ‘So, so, so; trot the ring twice over, and away.’ Ver exhales, speeches lengthen to manic overreach, the liveliness remains. It’s Nashe’s genius for discovering a completely different order of rhythm for this character, swiftly and rather harshly dragged off, that shows how characterfully he wrote at least for stereotypes. Vogiaridis makes an able and vari-coloured Mercury of a part before he’s whisked off. ‘The world is transitory; it was made of nothing, and it must to nothing’ isn’t quite the airy pupil Summer had in mind. Again it chills with good cheer.
Nick Jones’ Solstitiu ingratiates by his doddery balance of day and night, white and black glasses of daylight and night, the shrouded moderation well-paced and beautifully in keeping with the Saturnian frailty of the character. …’ what gave you to keep/But a few daisies in my prime of youth?’ It’s a self-effeacing that saves face ’neither to be great or envied’ and seals the Senecan moderation at the heart of this oiled and creaky discourse. By now Will Summers condemns the paly as a ‘galimaufry’ and it needs such injections, as the processional’s turned against itself for effect.
Isaac Sergeant’s Sol clearly provides a contrast as we’re growing used to the antiphonal praise and condemnation. Sol removes in his fiery pink and orange hair a set of shades he casually sets to be taken off only to don another. Like the sunflower too he turns and turns about, to the fury of Autumn and Winter, now given lengthy vents of seasonal displeasure. Sergeant’s smaller role is well taken in gesture and stance after one spirited comeback railing at the condemnation of natural heat – and the misapplication of study. ‘Let none but fools be cared for of the wise/Knowledge’s own children knowledge must despise.’ And his terrible riposte ‘What is eclipsed will one day shine again’ suffers no more than shrouding, not decay.
Orion an autumnal paradigm though is one of the greatest coups of the lost. Strong-voiced Charlie Waters in his Chipping Norton hunting pink, embodies not just the poise of the hunter before the storm but the great pack of Edwardian boys as dogs whom Waters casually pats turning to his great themes. His very insolence thrills: ‘Sirrah, was’t thou that called us from our game?/How durst thou (being but a petty god)/Disturb me in the entrance of my sports?’ The jarring rhythms and sharp-sides delivery rasps a different command, Waters projecting entitlement and mild impatience throughout. Turning on Autumn’s explication his own verse lopes to the scent using anaphora, repeated words opening phrases like ‘Another’ and other assonances conveying speed and tearing. It’s one of the liveliest speeches in the play; you hardly realise its so long. Waters and his mimetic hounds are some of the chief glories of this production.
Even Orion bogs down in another Latinate speech but its aggregation and sheer movement keep it lively. Curiously – and the psychology is difficult to work out – he’s let off, perhaps can hardy be held back, and Ben Clarke’s Harvest, the god of, well harvest whom you’d expect to bring abundance, brings on celebratory drinking and jobs-worth collapse. Either way, the chaff gets up Summer’s nose. Again the thrusting fleet monosyllabic ‘Sped well or will sir, I drink to you on the same’ or ‘Hooky, hooky, if you were not my lord, I would say you lie’ suggests profligate overabundance at the wrong moments. Certainly it’s not the Ceres-like beneficence you’d expect, but Harvest time often brought in a further dose of plague or spoiled crops. The resultant match between two harvests gathered in as it were results in more banishing. Clarke’s speech and presence is rapid and assured, only slightly overlaid a lack of pinpoint clarity from under his sheaf-like gear.
Bacchus- Joe Coghlan entering on shoulders of revellers and carried off the same – enjoys a kind of speed-dating in prose, unlike the previous openings. He’s armed too with a small barrel he seems to piss out of. He’s as profligate and intemperate in Latin as anything else ‘A pox on him that leaves his drink behind him’ and as you’d imagine he illustrates this. and he knights Will Summers ‘Sir Robert Tosspot’ which haunts him declaring ‘What a beastly thing it is to bottle yup ale in a mans’ belly’ and the rest as it were descends in an arc from that.
Autumn and Winter are finally allowed their speeches, fitting enough for they’re the inheritors. Again Jack Hawkins enjoys such lines as ‘Witches for gold will sell a man a wind’ and the dispatch of blank verse. Hawkins is a master of poise and resonance, great clarity and a characterful use of modulation and shading: he points everything up without resort to overt drama and the effect’s exquisite.
Though Summer settles on Autumn – and it’s no easy settlement but riven with pain – Winter’s speeches, the longest, move Ellingham’s stillness to a kind of watchful remonstrance, wholly contained his face a mask. He in fact rails at learning in such lines as ‘When Cerberus was headlong drawn from hell,/He voided a black poison from his mouth’ and this is ink. The deconstruction of learning is delivered with a hallucinatory pace. Elingham’s memory here like so many shorter speeches – is beyond praise.
This is when the most magical element of all enters in the famous ‘Adieu farewell earth’s bliss’ with tis refrain ‘I am sick, I must die’ rises out of the pit and the gallery, winking with lights as singers take up the chorus and an individual solicit leads each verse. Hawkins’ deliveries are quite magical in a performance literally shining with felicities. The only smudge was the soloists words next a nest of choristers in those most famous lines quoted at the top.
This is the core too of the often marvellous setting by Constant Lambert of this text from 1936, an oratorio occluded by the death of George V, rather fittingly, a winter king dying in winter. Recorded in 1992 the 400th anniversary, it was spoken of then as an elegy for the AIDS generation. Twenty-five years on, it reinvests itself with Nashe’s original meanings and a general mortality. ‘Fond are life’s lusty joys,/Death proves them all but toys’ and the whole stanza ‘Beauty is but a flower/Which wrinkles will devour/Brightness falls from the air/Queens have died young and fair,/Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.’ This is Nashe’s gift raised to the pitch of lyric genius. It’s enough that the musical direction rose to this greatest challenge so imaginatively.
Winter has a wallet at his back though. Two short sparks, the forward ungenerous spirit of Christmas, Ewan Craig’s spleen confounding expectations once again so Summer has to rail for generosity, not easy for him. ‘Aye, antiquity was the mother of ignorance’ and we’re sure of his sire, followed by much holly-pricking prose. It’s another able performance followed by ‘Back-winter’ that barren time before spring, with curses ‘With thee or Autumn have I naught to do; I would you were both hanged face to face.’ This to his father. Nilay Sah’s rasp is ferocious if short-lived as he’s carried off.
The end is stark. Gopsill’s delivery and faltering is taken to a new pitch here. The end, bittered by death and not at all reconciled, is superbly wrought. The musicians, increasingly present with solos like the violin, here come even more into her own than in the more lively jigs earlier. Summers deposition and collapse is movingly wrought and fittingly concluded even beyond Power’s raillery which has been fining down.
There’s one more surprise as Power introduces a badinage. A younger boy, Jamie Mitchell’s Epilogue is extraordinary. clasped wittily with a teddy bear he declaims a crystalline ending to a play skirled off at the end, as it has to be, with Power as the Summer who lasts. An extraordinary production. It’s good to know these Edward’s Boys are preserved on DVD.