FringeReview UK 2018
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 of Believe What You List is directed by Lora Davies at the Globe Wannamaker on July 15th. The next two RNDs are On The Road: first for Samuel Daniel’s The Queen’s Arcadia in Christ Church Oxford on Saturday 15th September, and then for Gray’s Inn continuing the Censorship (and Massinger) Season for Massinger’s The Little Lawyer, on Sunday September 30th.
Philip Massinger’s sexy, as Professor Matthew Steggle says in his notes, ‘underrated… a Read Not Dead favourite.’ There’s a hint for theatres. Believe As You List but Massinger’s star is on the rise. T. S. Eliot’s deadly censure of linguistic decadence is what several of us (including at least one Massinger director) grew up with, and now throw off when we actually see Massinger performed.
This time we’ve a miraculous rediscovery, from 1844: the manuscript of the controversial 1631 Believe As You List, illegible in two pages, but intact with play directions. It wasn’t published till the revised Gifford Edition (editor Lt. Colonel Francis Cunningham) in 1887. The illegible bits are quaintly signed ‘a sad hiatus’.
But as Steggle points out, the play’s embarrassingly relevant to 2018. Themes of extraordinary rendition, casual depositions of inconvenient truths, indeed post-truth, are all here.
Massinger got into trouble basing his play on the legend of King Sebastian of Portugal’s disappearance in 1578, leading to Spain’s annexation of the country. It’s a huge trauma, like the 1755 Lisbon earthquake: even the greatest Portuguese writer Ferdinand Pessoa, was Sebastian-obsessed in the 1930s. And a huge embarrassment for Spain. So thinking on English-Spanish relations the censor demanded a rewrite.
Think Ford’s Perkin Warbeck written at the same time (staged in 2015 by RND), a pseudo-Richard IV miraculously escaping Richard III. Four pseudo-Sebastians got executed. Massinger re-set it in BCE 169, 22 years after the Seleucid king Antiochus III was defeated by Roman Proconsul Flaminius and pops up again after walking with philosophers all this time. Well not quite, but as the title says…
So Globe Education’s Read Not Dead Censorship Season continues with its sell-out performances thanks to the inclusion of Globe Education information in the main 2018 programme.
As RND suggests to those new to it, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are reanimated for a single day. RND by 2033 will have put on all extant plays between 1567 and 1642, including Hamlet.
This production of Massinger’s Believe What You List is directed by Lora Davies at the Wanamaker, with minimal props – mainly swords and some police uniforms.
The company-shared prologue heavily hints at ‘what’s Roman here… draw too near/A late, and sad example.’ Massinger’s play opens outside Carthage where David Carr’s Antiochus is having second thoughts about revealing himself to Rome’s old enemy and securing sanctuary. Michael Sheldon’s Stoic philosopher unusually (well he was a Catholic Priest) urges him on. Carr, who enjoys a light touch and comic gestures at this point utters one of Antiochus’ self-doubting monologues recalling when beautiful kings’ daughters were offered till that day:
… all those innocent spirits
borrowing again their bodies gashed with wounds…
… appear to me exacting
A strict accompt of my ambitious folly
For the exposing of twelve thousand souls…
It even took place near where Gulf War II cost more than that. The two-page hiatus vanishes the Stoic (all handled comically here), and Antiochus’ three servants after twenty-two years have suddenly had enough: Neal Craig, Theo Odungipe, Sarah-Jane Butler sketchily beat up Antiochus, strip him of his proofs, abandon him. You’d think they’d have thought of it earlier. Antiochus staggers for succour to Carthage, finding it in three merchants and Berecinthius. And the Senate.
Berecinthius is surely one of Massinger’s greatest creations. A self-proclaimed fat buffoon, mix of (presumably) Catholic priest, trimming Anglican and Falstaffian chancer, he possesses self-knowledge, courage, a streak of nobility. Clive Hayward seizes his chance and launches into the gem of the production. Befriending Antoiochus in his girth (Hayward doesn’t emulate this to absurdity) alongside the Merchants, he champions him for his own ends and preferment, though you never feels that’s the entire story. Opposed to them is Jonathan Christie’s Flaminius, Roman Proconsul set on destroying Antiochus.
Wise-cracking Berecinthius and the merchants counterpoint Antiochus throughout. First Merchant Catrin Aaron, on a day off from her Phoebe in As You Like It and Horatio in Hamlet at the Globe, proves the noblest, sharing Berecinthius’ fate in eventually refusing to recant Antiochus’ identity when captive to Flaminius and save themselves.
Victoria John and Jilly Bond the Second and Third Merchants show discretion, release and thus eventually secure the villain’s downfall. John gets a little more to say than Bond. They’re both natural in role and the tiny interplay among them at the Carthage trial is one of those spontaneously animating things making RND such a joy. Aaron directs several speeches at Hayward and the villain, and there’s no doubt of her strengths; it’d be good to see them again.
Having dispatched (via Jon Trenchard’s Calistus, Caitlin Shannon’s skirling Demetrius) the three ‘poor snakes’ Antiochus’ ex-servants, in Machiavellian logic (Machiavelli’s cited as an influence on this play) after they’ve revealed all he confesses he ‘began/To feel an inclination to believe/What I must have no faith in’ and warbles about Rome. Christie’s thrilling steeliness is beautifully spoken. He’s not a developed character but Christie does what he can and renders him almost formidable.
Whilst Antiochus isn’t given full protection by Carthage David Whitworth makes his first appearance as Amilcar, the most senior, and Trenchard and Butler return as Hanno and Asdrubal. Whilst Whitworth impresses in Odysseus-like terms straight out of Troilus and Cressida, though offering protection, there’s a silent Carthalo: Nadia Albina’s first appearance is followed up straight by Titus, spy to Flaminius. She’s discovered where Antiochus is off to next. Albina’s final role – a delight – is still to come.
By this time you get the feeling you’re watching outtakes of Pericles. It’s pretty like, sans family and reconciliation. Treacherous kings, flight and shipping without end, with dungeons at the end. Bithynia’s king Prusias (Ogundipe again) and Shannon his queen, offer two performances of exquisite sophistry and sincerity. Ogundipe’s finest is yet to come but here he’s wonderfully purring and well-intentioned as the king whose tutor Whitworth’s insinuating Philoxenus is promised Roman citizenship by Flaminius.
When Flaminius fetches up and Prusias reluctantly cedes him out of fear of conquest and slaughter (in fairness compelling arguments, but where’s Flaminius’ army?) it’s Shannon who rises to extremes against him and Flaminius with some magnificence. It’s one of those moments that lights up this somewhat picaresque comi-tragedy (it was identified as both).
Meanwhile in what’s nearest to a subplot Berecinthius and the Frist Merchant have fallen into the clutches of Flaminius. Their lives will be spared if they renounce Antiochus’ claims. The other two merchants have, as we’ve seen, but these two curiously don’t. It’s one of those moments Massinger lights well. Some of the best scenes are between Christie and Hayward, in all their confrontations. Finally the old priest complains in a Falstaffian Stoicism:
‘What a skeleton they have made of me! Starve me first and hang me after….. pared the flesh from off my fingers’ ends and then laughed at me.’
His speech breaks into verse too, with grotesque details of self-consuming. A decent officer assures him of burial, the First Merchant more conventionally stoic asks ‘Are you not made to talk thus?’ and Berecnthius’ superb reply shows the height of this contradictory character:
I came crying into this world, and am resolved
To go out merrily, therefore dispatch me.
Flaminius is relieved of his proconsulship – so he can go persecute Antiochus – by his successor Metellus (Michael Sheldon, a neatly cynical Roman turn). It allows Ogundipe a terrific turn as a knowing Centurion Sempronius prepared to do anything but also report on Antiochus’ reception by the crowd. And a truculent Londoner he proves. If only Ogundipe’s Centurion had longer here to ply his cheerful murderousness.
Flaminius starves Antiochus but Neal Craig’s Jailor finds the means of suicide aren’t used. He’s starved but refuses to refuse food. Finally Butler enjoys a turn as the Courtesan, nearly succeeding in dislodging Antiochus’ dignity, claiming virginity. ‘If I hadn’t toyed with her myself I should now believe her’ Ogundipe leers on like Flaminius and Metellus from the gallery. Butler’s best is reserved as she’s spurned after seraphic learned overtures. ‘Have I lived to have/My courtesies refused? That I had leave/To pluck thy eyes out!’ Butler ‘reverts’ to pure Southwark doxy.
Antiochus is landed on Syracuse en route but Jon Trenchard as Marcellus the Pronconsul and Albina his wife Cornelia knew him, though cautiously play their hand.
In a moving scene, proofs are brought in a choice of swords – and Butler as a Moorish waiting woman as memory back-up. It’s Albina’s Cornelia though who on her knees proclaims him in tears. Why? He’s not only discovered a secret compartment in a jewel he gave her, but whispers aside that he recalls the time she offered herself to him. In short Marcellus brings in the two surviving Merchants who attest Flaminius bribed them. He can only be recalled in disgrace and in an obscure mode there’s little to be done for Antiochus, not even house arrest here but (so not to embarrass Rome) an island:
Then tis easy
To prophesy I have not long to live …
…… May my story
Teach potentates humility, and instruct
Proud monarchs, tho’ they govern human things,
A greater power doth raise, or pull down kings.
Carr whose best speeches are the one to Prusias and here, rises to Antiochus’ rather two-dimensioned grandeur. After an epilogue delivered by the company you’re left with an aching absence, not simply for the illegible writing (new methods might restore them) but for the unravelment. Massinger refuses a happier end or a bloodier one. Very like Guantanamo.
Not one of Massinger’s finest plays – it’s lacking in driven plot and like Pericles wanders from what it has – it’s still evidence of how resourcefully the dramatist altered roles under duress, still producing a work rich in a few characters, supremely Berecinthius; and poignant recognition scenes touching some of his greatest. It’s the larky stoic Berecinthius though, who adds a dimension to the Caroline stage. Hayward’s fruity declamations shroud nobility under the chubby chancer. They’ll resonate for anyone lucky enough to have seen him.