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.
Continuing the Massinger season, Jason Morell directs a spirited rehearsed reading of Fletcher and Massinger’s The False One, at Sackler Studios Globe Education.
The Read Not Dead programme rounds three-quarters of its thirty year project to present every play text from 1567-1642. Frequently not revived for 400 years, this treasury can be assessed theatrically. RND’s dedicated to dragging plays out of a quattrocento sleep; it’s cutting ancient paper to reveal a text never seen.
The False One’s certainly obscure, not because of its plotline. If Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra makes that obvious, Shaw’s treatment shrouds a clutch of seventeenth-century Cleopatras most realized in their Antony phase by Shakespeare and Dryden who began and ended the run seventy years apart. Dating from around1620, this collaboration’s typical of the way Massinger would take all (or elsewhere most of) the outer acts, and Fletcher supply the middle three.
This usually worked well: not wholly here. Massinger’s gift for comedy is confined to the final act, though Fletcher’s wry invention, song and spectacle at least scores palpable hits seized on by Morell and his team. Massinger, gifted for tragedy too, is weighted down by exposition here; and as everyone knew the story, needlessly.
The dramatists challenge anxiety of influence in their prologue (multi-voiced here):
We treat not of what boldness she did die,
Nor of her fatal love to Antony.
What we present and offer to your view,
Upon their faiths, the stage yet never knew.
We get it: Anthony and Cleopatra Part I. Shakespeare did as much with Henry I/VI. Naturally parallels with James’ court abound, particularly choosing eunuchs as plotters, a lethal injection of Whitehall homophobia.
The title could refer to most protagonists, but essentially the complex Septinius, Nick Fletcher relishing more the scholar than the soldier, best when cauled in remorse and skulking.
A Roman soldier under Pompey stationed in Egypt, he undertakes that general’s murder, bribed by Caroline Faber’s excellent Photinus, a plotting Egyptian eunuch, and more reluctantly by Achillas the decent captain of guard to Ptolemy, King of Egypt. Pompey’s enemy Caesar is at hand: his severed head would make a choice offering urges Photinus. Achillas demurs. Patrick Toomey’s incisive voice well complements Faber’s detailed pauses and snake-snatched aplomb: chief schemer, she insinuates the time needed to emphasise each twist; it’s one of the finest performances here. It backfires, particularly on young King Ptolomy: Peter Bray blends nobility, panic and late resolve in another vocally strong performance. Caesar feigns and perhaps feels fury – cheated of overcoming Pompey personally.
It’s been suggested Septinius is modeled on Shakespeare’s Enobarbus, that noble defector of Antony’s. Perhaps a sliver of him, since Septinius’ conflicted response to first killing his general then finding he’s shunned by even lame soldiers when he offers gold, is to undergo some curious switchbacks of remorse. He’s not developed enough though his Act IV scenes, first with soldiers who approve his penitence, is neatly turned by Photinus harking on his shame, that made him abjure murder. Most, Photinus contrasts Caesar’s lack of remorse where he’d:
….slaughter thousands in a battle
And whip his country with the sword? to cry for’t?
Though kill’dst great Pompey: He’ll kill all his kindred
and justify it.
One wonders what self-hating figure might have emerged in Faber’s and (Nick) Fletcher’s exchanges had Septinius been explored, but star names tugged at the dramatists.
Happily that’s to the good in Act III where Daisy Bolton’s Arsino (sister to Cleopatra, and in the masque, Isis) and Eliza Butterworth’s ‘wanton’ maid Eros badinage amongst themselves, Cleopatra and others. It’s Bolton who creates the vocals and masque’s dance-off, with a tiny nod to the rhythm of Lili Bolero at one point. It’s as exceptionally finished as Faber’s reading, involving other actors.
Caesar and Cleopatra perch on high stepladders, Caesar mesmerized by something else, Cleopatra seething (Appiah at her best here and in Act V). It’s at moments like these one laments these performances aren’t filmed and archived, with suitable provisos.
The dramatic irony is that this measure, urged on by the more pacific Achoreus (a nicely pious Christian Bradley), backfires as surely as Ptolomey’s murder did urged on by Photinus. Steve Touissant’s magnificently commanding Caesar (his ‘steadfast’ speeches echo Shakespeare) having earlier seduced Cleopatra who’s managed her rug trick (regal Madeline Appiah, festooned in cadmium yellow) is now dazzled not with the masque, but Egypt’s measureless gold. Why receive it? Why not seize the lot?
Caesar’s balanced too by a superb, satyr-snarling performance: Ryan Early’s loyal Sceva mistakes Cleopatra for a harlot yet refuses to change his opinion, breaking rancorous truth to power like a series of well-aimed farts. He at least talks home. Banished from the room, he lolls round a pillar and jumps straight back to rail at Caesar. To Captain Dolabella (another finely voiced performance from Edmund Sage Green):
She will be sick, well, sullen,
Merry, coy, over-joy’d, and seem to die,
All in one half-hour, to make an ass of him;
I make no doubt she will be drunk too, damnably,
And in her drink will fight; then she fits him.
A much-needed complement to comic female roles, any future performance needs to keep all Sceva. Tarna Phethean’s put-upon Labienus, a nuncio, anchors one scene with vocal dispatch too.
Back Massinger trumpets with Roman bronze for Act V, dizzying more rapidly with plot as the three schemers undertake a separate target; Caesar’s hemmed in and offers Ptolomey a chance of honour and life. Unlike Act I we’re hurtled through brazen engines and reverses of war – including a spectacular proposal of marriage to Cleopatra – from Photinus!
Soon enough Photinus utters:
I feel now
that there are powers above us; and that ‘tis not
Within the searching policies of man
To alter their decrees.
The bad end unhappily. And Septinius? Since history doesn’t record his punishment and death, his last offer to Caesar scorned, there’s a neat solution. ’Hang not an arse’ one soldier ripostes and there’s a surprising denouement.
Morell relishes this, paces with an alacrity and fine eddy of detail that anchors memorable scenes. That’s enough in an uneven drama. There’s Fletcherian flashes of poetry throughout (all smoky arrows). Perhaps trimmed this play might still provide the period’s one essay on this subject, whose theme of loyalty trimmed, suborned and occasionally redeemed must strike us as horribly perennial.