FringeReview UK 2017
Directed by John Hopkins. 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-Shakesperean plays from the 1580s. Before Shakespeare is an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project.
This is followed by Fidele et Fortunio on 18 June, Mucedorus on 16 July, and John Lyly’s Sapho and Phao on 27 August in conjunction with the Before Shakespeare conference taking place from 25 – 26 August.
It’s Anon, for the first time in a while at the Read Not Dead Wanamaker Globe series directed by John Hopkins. This one inaugurates a Before Shakespeare summer season of four plays from the 1580s, a melting pot where five unfamiliar new buildings arose: commercial playhouses. We’ve very few texts from this period yet what we have throw startling light on later texts, including Shakespeare’s late Romance plays. It’s an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project.
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 435 years old.
The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune of 1582 (published 1589) is a crackingly-paced romp starting with disputing goddesses and Jupiter’s hopeless arbitration. Stephanie Lane’s witchy Tisiphone dregs up from some Stygian gloom to toss a turd of discord amongst goddesses before she’s banished by director Hopkins; the damage is done.
Mortals are the proving-ground. Venus and Fortune (a sort of lugubrious Juno) dispute over who holds the most agency over humans. Hopkins carries his cardboard bolt nonchalantly and speaks resonantly, Mercury fiddles with his Caduceus, Vulcan burls on with his smithy apron and voice – Tim Frances’ first role. Alix Dunmore’s slinky Venus makes immediate impression discoursing with a few entitlement shrugs. Emma Pallant’s Lady Fortune can’t compete in sheer verve but grinds her voice in a deliberate mill-race.
The mortals’ court plot is simple but allows female agency freer rein than normal for the period. Fidelia (Stephanie Lane again) loves obscurely-born Hermione who’s not an early modern example of gay love but Patrick Walsh McBride given the only known instance of male use. In fact he’s the unsuspecting son of long-banished noble Bomelio (Sam Cox) who lives in a cave as you do when banished. Fidelia’s later brought there and you begin to go all Cymbeline, but that’s nothing to the tempest of books later.
Fidleia’s father Phyzssntius – Tim Frances again – gently enough banishes Hermione after a brawl involving James Askill’s Armenio, Phyzssntius’ choleric son and Fidelia’s jealous brother. Eventually all fall within the range of banished Bomelio who works magic to redress wrongs to his son and the princess he loves. First after being pushed out of the way Bomelio strikes Armenio dumb. To work magic he needs his books.
This isn’t without hindrance from parasite Penulo (Martin Hodgeson) and Bomelio’s man Lentulo, a magnificent Dan Starkey, whose byword for tardiness is countered by the alacrity with which he runs from service (a ‘runaway’ confers quasi-serf status). Whereas Hodgeson nearly insinuates his threadbare gentility to lig all the way back to court, Starkey who has nearly all lines off-script already, snarls and gnarls his servile distemper in comic rages. It’s a superb performance, none more so when carrying a marigold and massvie rn in hs teeth he aspires to the princess. Similarly bearing a fardel’s worth of a backpack for Penulo a balloon carrying the princess’ image flies out of it straight up to the gods as it were, to his utter dismay. He’s expressed impertinent interest in the princess. It’s another prop masterstroke in this beautifully detailed production.
Sam Cox too is masterful in this. He makes much of the alliterative verse so guyed by Shakespeare only thirteen years later in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some arcane words like ‘wight’ still obtain too – this delicately-poised masque show language in transition. You see Cox pulse and pause as he visibly thinks through the implications of what he’s essaying as dangerous magician or wounded, wronged courtier and father.
One feature of this masque is the extraordinary pitch and variety of verse, from blank to varying couplets to prose, which Cox gets most opportunity to try out. Reunited with Hermione he finds his books gone after rescuing Fideli -, a lovely recognition scene since she thought him an old man pushed aside by her interfering brother. He’s passed himself off as Italian to cure dumb, down-hearted Phyzssntius, the man he’s in fact struck dumb. Hermione discovers them and priggishly burns them.
We’re now treated to Cox’s enacting Bomelio’s running mad right out of the theatre and hollering round its brickish O. It’s the first Orlando-like madness I know of, taken from Ariosto’s 1521 Orlando Furioso which fed every distracted thing even Spenser’s Faerie Queene. ‘My books!’ intones Bomelio unwilling unlike Prospero to part with or drown them. Hopkins has a share, though Cox imbues this character’s direction with the most intense life; painfully funny, it’s sometimes painful. Finally he knocks himself out.
Another subtler agency involves the tides of goddesses influence throughout, first one then another, though implicit. It’s only in the half-way point and final scene that their differing roles are enforced, claiming retrospective signatures.
Just as everyone fetches up Tempest-like at the cave, including half the court, up pop the goddesses led by Mercury, Jupiter curiously leaving them to equivocate, revive Bomelio and take Fideklais offered blood from near her heart to effect this and erase her brother’s dumbness; it’s a mythic scene resonant of Shakespeare’s Romance world. But this is the world he took it from. Leo Wan’s Mercury conjures the goddesses to agree only to aid each other’s hotspots and leave the rest. Fidelia revials, the choleric brother begs forgiveness as does the father.
There’s some superb acting, Cox and Starkey consummately, and to a large degree Frances. Dunmore fills out Venus with swervy adroitness and thought-through poise. Askill’s dumb-show of his actions, run through twice at one point is a high-point, and Mcbride’s truth to feeling is superbly done too; someone to watch. Hopkins is luxury casting as Jupiter but like him has other things to think of. Deviser James Wallace too gets roped in.
This is one of the very liveliest performances with a remarkably detailed sort of propos, and two performances almost off the script altogether.