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.
Like Shakespeare and as we now know with Middleton in Measure for Measure, Fletcher and Massinger enjoyed a posthumous collaboration.
It’s generally assumed this play was left finished if not wholly fleshed at John Fletcher’s untimely death in 1625 from the plague. Philip Massinger then in full spate added substantial sections to the first and fifth acts before it was published in 1637, proving popular and revived at the Restoration. The Elder Brother certainly rings with Fletcher’s wit but also in the title role a remarkably powerful eloquence as this woman-abjuring scholar is transfixed by the woman intended for his younger brother, set as a courtier to inherit everything. This comedic upset of the natural order – primogeniture – is the play’s mainspring.
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, though occasionally plays are back by popular demand (as is the next in this Massinger series, The Custom of the Country on October 1st).
Directed by RND stalwart Jenny Eastop, the play’s notable for richness of language and in Charles the elder brother’s Act III address to Angelina and indeed the whole company. It’s powerful, stellar in imagery and reach, something rare in comedy and perhaps only found in Shakespeare.
We’re safely in France. Peter Wicks’ imposing Charles, renouncing worldly success for his books, appears late on the scene after his father justice Brisac, Henry Everett has concluded with neighbour lord Lewis – the fine-flustering Jeremy Booth – a marriage settlement between that lord’s daughter Angelina, RND regular Emily Denly, and Brisac’s younger son Eustace. The scene between Booth and Denly, where Angelina is tracatable and placid enough to entertain the idea of Eustace, is one of those father/daughter scenes where you know his overweening fondness will turn sour fast enough. It might turn sourer if Sylvia, her woman has anything to do with it. Charlie Ryall, urging on a young man before natural lust pushes Angelina forward, would seem a natural ally to both. It’s a pity Ryall has so little to do as the plot unfolds, only making one more substantial contribution. It’s not a play where women are given much scope.
Happily Denly‘s role gradually ramps up dramatic tensions on her own account. Presented with vapid Eustace, she cools off elegantly but fast. Her pacing and delivery of neat, intellectually pointed lines is sovereign. This isn’t an RND play with many props – a few swords in comic wood, little else. It’s the words that fixate and Denly commands a poise and stillness that receives Charles’ admiration when they finally meet with the amazement of one encountering an equal to her ideals.
He refuses to sign over his rights now he sees a point in them, and like his younger brother, goes about an internal revolution. He doesn’t so much renounce learning as see it has led to this point: the Lover, brimful of tropes and figures has a point to his eloquence; words are in their proper service to beauty, love, a spellbound if not sparring partner.
Everett’s splenetic outbursts as Brisac are some of the most adrenalin-blasted seen in recent RNDs. The whole play, at that uneasy social juncture of the 1620s and 30s, interrogates early modern nostrums with this Janus-facing paradox: support traditional primogeniture whilst in modern terms allow a woman to choose her husband. Booth and Everett are testament to how this fractures.
Before this we’re treated to the trio of servants echoing their masters’ interests. The most elegant subplot involves Michael Watson-Gray’s servant to Charles, Andrew, who delights in wry manoeuvres and plottings with Uncle Miramont (more on him soon) to rescue situations or indulge in righteous blackmail. Andrew’s taken up more than scholarly leavings on his own account, and both bounces off Tim Blore’s foppish Butler and Benjamin’s Garrison’s comically aggrieved Cook, and has to fend off master Brisac’s design on the very woman chosen for him, Lilly. Sadly and even more than Ryall, Elloise Thomson has little to do but resist Brisac as ‘Lillypot’, and become a coy decoy. Brisac’s entrapment here allows leverage against such time as he attempts to enforce a marriage, with Lewis’s help, between Eustace and Angelina.
Jonathon Reid’s clever insinuation of vacuous compliment aided by sidekicks Cowsy and Egremont (Harry Russell and Monty D’Inverno almost wholly given to farcical whimpering) isn’t the coxcomb he seems, though. Finally presented after several reverses with a mirror of himself in his sidekicks, he renounces them and attempts to win over Angelina not by brute force (more of that anon) but fair fight with his brother. He discovers nobility, happily without more than a few parries till the dea ex machina of all arrives on the scene.
This is James Wallace’s uncle Miramont, the necessary authority figure who has opposed brother Brisac’s unnatural plans, and as elder brother himself is able to promise Charles his own inheritance, since his contempt for Eustace is palpable. Wallace too often confining himself to prologues, relishes this role, full of swift-thinking avuncular dispatch and not a little devilry at his younger brother’s expense. If this relationship seems to echo his brother’s sons, it ought to be noted that he loves the sound of his nephew Charles quoting Aristotle, but hasn’t a notion of what he talks of. The love of learning, if not comprehension, is enough to aspire to – rather like patronising the arts. It’s almost plausible though Cambridge-educated Fletcher is gently rounding out the foibles of even this wise counselor.
Having had Charles’ great climactic speech and elopement of Act III, it almost seems the play’s over; it certainly suggests a great pause at the end of Act III and it’s naturally where the interval was placed. However attempted then actual abduction, blackmail and rescue provide enough activity for Act IV and much of Act V. The comedy of Lord Lewis now turning on Brisac interrogates the folly of fond age and a value system out of kilter with what the play suggests is natural law: primogeniture assured and the right to make at least a restricted choice of a worthy husband. Denly and Wicks delight in proving the marriage of true minds stripped of ornament or indeed lust – the separate bed scene is prettily handled. Happily lust is allowed mutually and refreshingly – Fletcher’s cheerful realism is as refreshing here as in the very different The Coxcomb.
Eustace too wins everyone’s approbation, even his father Brisac who had suspected him of cowardice, but particularly when he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother resisting Lewis’ attempts to have Brisac arraigned. Quite how Booth’s character Lewis turns from fond father to such a splenetic and vengeful neighbour from hell isn’t quite charted, but his irascibility (worse than Lord Capulet’s) should be enough for 1637.
It’s a rich play, worthy of of canonic restoration, as indeed it was of the Restoration stage; though what Pepys thought of it bar it being ‘ill-acted’ will remain unclear. Both Fletcher and Massinger excelled in comedies; this was one way Massinger could indulge himself, whilst repaying old debts.