FringeReview UK 2017
Read Not Dead ground rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts and then assemble on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. This production directed by Philip Bird, Massinger The Unnatural Combat was performed at Gray’s Inn on October 29th. After that Jason Morell directs The Great Duke of Florence back at the Globe Wanamaker on November 12th.
Philip Massinger’s The Unnatural Combat is a savage 1625 state-of-the-nation assault on Barbary pirates, court corruption, the scandalous treatment of returning soldiers – especially after the disaster of the Cadiz expedition – and above all James I’s loathed favourite, the Duke of Buckingham
Directed by Philip Bird it features the heightened language and situations Massinger’s famous for with a complex very flawed protagonist. The scabrous comedy almost persuades us this mightn’t end badly.
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. At Gray’s Inn, an acoustic as challenging as it is evocative, we’re blessed with a gallery where Graham Kent’s trumpet and Kate Elliott’s accordion punctuate the drama where both players then join the ensemble for small parts. Emily Baines has researched and arranged all the music.
The Unnatural Combat features a towering central role, that of Malefort Senior, take toweringly by Tim Frances, always superb in character parts and here allowed a basso profundo of Boris Godonov complexity. Frances uses the whole gallery to stride ferociously up and down the three-side-seated audience, turning the space to an echo chamber of forbidden lust. The hall needs this treatment to keep a production airborne. Accused of complicity in his son’s treacherous turn to piracy, he’s arraigned by his old enemy the governor Beaufort Senior, but ably takes up the challenge on ‘the field of honour’ to defeat his own son in single combat: hence the title. Tok Stephen (another regular) ably throws verbal challenges to his father though quickly dispatched he only returns stripped to the waist as a ghost, and in smaller parts.
Quite why the son’s turned to piracy and challenge isn’t revealed till the end, his accusation of his father’s ‘deed of horror’ unexplained: verbally it neatly subverts the homophonous ‘field of honour’ too. In another seemingly gratuitous act, Malefort mutilates his son’s body – Frances emulates this death with slashings with suitable ferocity before the body’s released for burial.
There’s a sister though, Theocrine played with a contained woe flecked with joy by Emily Barber. Affianced – despite Beaufort Senior’s displeasure – to Beaufort Junior, the marital arrangements look simple. Alex Boxall another returning actor, gives excellent clarity and a youthful ardent appeal to his part. Roger Eastman’s unbending father keeps his anxieties gruffly in check.
The canker though is Frances’ incestuous agonizing. Frist confining her, he seeks support from his supposed friend Montreville, Colin Manning’s close-weaved conniver at ruin. He hands Theorcrine over to her care, unable to keep his lusts secret any further. Commander of the fort, he’s impregnable and in one of those set-ups Malefort implores him not to listen to any subsequent pleas of his own to release her. Montreville though has designs of his own. how could Malefort have forgotten the second of his three wives was Montreville’s beloved mistress, and Malefort poisoned his first wife – Malefort Junior’s mother – to marry her.
This indeed explains both friend and son’s actions. Theorcrine was the third wife’s offspring, the only wife to die naturally – Theocrine’s resemblance being one of the inflammatories. At this point of revelation, two ghosts pointing, towards the end, and Malefort almost inviting divine retribution, you wonder if Massinger suddenly needed to invent reasons to dispatch his central character, and hesitated.
By this time the main villainy has been committed elsewhere. Theocrine appears dishevelled, traumatised by something terrible, and is thrust out of the fortress. Barber’s dramatically transformed here. No need for Malefort to plead. When he sees his daughter now, all lust vanishes. The scene with Barber and Frances is one of the most riveting.
The subplot collides with the main one at banquets only. Belgarde, a poor captain, seeks redress fro the state as well as back-pay for all his men too. Surprisingly the celebratory meal upstage (as much as the hall in the round permits this) showers him with gold, which he promptly loses to creditors. Michael Burton appropriately trinketed with a garish scarlet uniform and then a hunting green attire romps through his part with aplomb and rare panache.
There’s fine opportunities at least for Hannah Parker’s Page, who gamines about outrageously leavening the lugubrious moments. The three assistants to the governor are happly assigned to Sandra Villani as the grave Montaigne, Chantelle Staynings as a sparky Chamont, and Gillian Geddes as sensible Lanour. All revel in their opportunities to shine contrastingly as fashionable types, and Theocrine’s waiting women Julia Winwood and Kate Elliott revel as cackling women of the night. As does Graham Kent’s Usher doubling with a handkerchief on his head out of Monty Python. Most of all he plays the trumpet through a variety of period and other material, often with Elliot’s accordion. Bruce Houlder as a sea captain seconding Stephen’s Young Malefort, dragging him off after he’s killed, stays a melancholy moment as touchingly Kent’s trumpet plays The Three Ravens, that elegy for a fallen knight needing burial. Philip Bird himself lurks in a couple of walk-ons, once as a unused priest.
To experience this play in these surroundings is a special occasion. It’s not an ideal theatrical space though looks splendid, and the gallery allowed some superb musical effects. It’s certainly graced by one of Massinger’s most remarkable plays, and with Frances bestriding his part and leading the company, it’s a winning combination.