FringeReview UK 2017
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.
Frances Marshall brings a vibrant revival to Philip Massinger’s 1623 The Duke of Milan with thirteen volunteer actors after six hours’ rehearsal. It’s one of Massinger’s finest, inaugurating the Massinger Globe Education 2017 season of Read Not Dead, today in the Sackler.
As Read Not Dead suggests, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are dedicated to dragging plays out of a quattrocento sleep; sometimes it’s like cutting ancient paper to reveal a text never seen.
There’s an explosion of real canned beer as Mark Oosterveen’s Graccho extolls the virtues of drunkenness to Jovio (one of sparky Martin Sarreal’s parts). Oosterveen lights up each scene, though with less copious quantities of beer as spill here, disposing the audience to comedy what in fact’s a tragedy, if with less body-count than normal.
Graccho is lynch-pin to the plot, part Lucio out of Measure for Measure, part Iachimo. Serving feisty Mariana (Laura Darrall) sister to Ludovico Sfora, Duke of Milan, he shuttles loyalties between Mariana and her husband Francisco (Deidre Mullins) with consequences he tries to reverse.
It’s not surprising. Mariana and her mother Isabella (Laura Cox) loathe the Duke’s virtuous but proud wife Marcelia (elegant Isabella Marshall). The Duke so dotes on her that when confronted with defeat by the Emperor of Spain (Sarreal again) he asks Francisco to kill her rather than let her be enjoyed by another. This goes awry. The Duke in fact makes such a courageous speech to the Emperor that he’s released.
But Francisco has a motived malignity discovered much later. He first tries the Duchess, revealing the order; when this fails, reveals the whole of it: death only if the Duke’s fall is certain. Result, proud Duchess coldly receives the Duke who importunes then decides (again) on her death.
Paradoxically Francisco has the Duke’s entire confidence. Mullins who takes her trousered role seriously, really delivers Francisco’s principled villainy with an almost dignified relish.
Two superb scenes interpose. In the Duke’s absence Mariana low and little but fierce, abuses Marcelia: ‘she’s three feet too high for a woman’. Darrall’s Hermia-like rage is joined by Cox’s Isabella in a fireworks of invective, Cox’s penetrating voice complementing Darrall’s fury. Both Darrall centrally and the affronted Marshall behind most of the sixty-strong audience in the round, face off on plinths. It’s ferocious, comic and ends in a vicious cat-fight where after broken ‘I’m out of breath’ sentences from Mariana Francisco intervenes sending his own wife and mother-in-law to prison.
The other has Francisco send Oosterveen’s Graccho for a whipping for his part, allowing David Whitworth, here one whipmaster Hernando, to elucidate to Graccho all miraculous benefits. Audience members whoremasters or whores are dragged up to confirm their benefitting from a good thrashing and asked to thank Hernando. Whitworth relishes this in contrast to his courtier role as Stephano. His companion Tiberio is played by the gravel-voiced Andrew Hodges who appeals as an Officer witnessing the Duke’s noble pleading, and thawing.
Louis Martin takes on similar soldierly roles principally Medina, exuding bluff honesty. Sadie Parsons another soldier most enjoys being Marcelia’s maid, offering Francisco a readier bed than Marcelia’s with the eagerness of Diaphanta from The Changeling. Again Massinger’s small roles twinkle mischief in the face of darkness.
Joseph Chance’s reading of a Duke perpetually in extremis reveals an actor born for these parts, so headlong he almost gulps his huge role. His violence of manner fulfills all his voice promises, from first wheedlings to outright murderousness, Chance emanates wounded, obsessive fixation. All he has for balance is his well-meaning friend Pescara, Lula Suassuna’s bumbling role.
Two great pairings-off flourish between Francisco and the outwitted Graccho, the latter trying for advantage and at every turn literally whipped by Francisco’s superior Machiavel. These are the closest plotting, quicksilver dialogues of the play, a leitmotif you enjoy anticipating. It holds an unexpected outcome.
The other’s the couple at the centre. Chance moves from cringingly doting to murderous jealousy with penitence and a touching final scene. His force is difficult to counter; Marshall’s stillness and poise manages this with spirited hauteur and at the end with a tiny heartrending benediction.
There’s another unsuspected couple however. Francisco’s closest relationship is with an actor not seen till late on: Rebecca Todd’s Eugenia, his wronged sister. The kernel of revenge and blood feud is something not of Eugenia’s wishing though. She wishes no harm on poor Marcelia whom she rightly sees as innocent of Francisco’s own obsessing. Todd like Chance, for instance, is blessed with a fine ear for blank verse, speaking it with a ringing sanity. It’s a sanity needed by the end.
Frances Marshall ensures a superbly spirited ensemble piece, with apposite small props and a freshness you can smell – not blood. Though three hours with a break this never once even falters; it’s as realized a performance as you could ever wish, touched with scenic brilliance.
It’s equally a fine curtain-raiser to a year of Massinger, underrated by T. S. Eliot perhaps, a later Jacobean whose collaborative career took a while to fly solo, was always poor and eleven of whose plays ended as pie-liners. His lean late-Jacobean, dramatically interrupted style plays thrillingly. A finer comedian than Ford, he complements him in a last Caroline flourish where his economy and wry dispatch leap at you. There’s still fifteen solo-authored and many collaborations to discover, several in this year’s RND. It’s hoped the main house might look again at these and pluck them for their winter seasons.