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FringeReview UK 2018

The Tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt

Shakespeare’s Globe Education with Arts and Humanities Research Council

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Political, Scratch Performance, Theatre

Venue: Wanamaker Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe


Low Down

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 Fletcher and Massinger’s The Tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt on Sunday November 18th directed by James Wallace concludes the Censorship Season and with the postponement of Middleton’s A Game of Chess, the next RND’s of Edward I, on February 5th 2019.



It’s not often now you find theatrical masterpieces coming out of events three months old. It wasn’t common in 1619, though not unknown. This play though is unique: both in dispatch and mastery.


So it’s back to the Wanamaker for the final Read Not Dead performance this year. Massinger and Fletcher’s The Tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt. Like its predecessor The Little French Lawyer dates from that spike in their collaboration around 1619. It appeared that August.


Unlike others, though it languished in manuscript till 1883, miraculously surviving. Like the recent Believe as You List which similarly lay undiscovered in manuscript till 1847, this is a phenomenal discovery – partly for the light it throws on copying, performance practice and much else.


It also happens though to be something like a masterpiece; that could be plain masterpiece. No wonder James Wallace wanted to direct it a second time, after its first appearance in 2006. For such a potent work the stage was clear for the scope of an action of three and a quarter hours with interval. Macbeth elements including mirrored doors remain: a swept stage, a few benches and chairs, and ubiquitous swords and that’s it. A cast of fifteen mostly multi-roling is dizzying, hard-working and remarkably seamless. Formal modern dress with a liking for leather jackets in princes sets off a swift unfussy production that goes for truth and lean action.


So Globe Education’s Read Not Dead Censorship Season concludes with the last of 2018’s sell-out performances. As RND suggests to those new to it, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are reanimated for a day. RND by 2033 will have put on all extant plays between 1567 and 1642, including Hamlet.


2018’s theme though has focused on those plays snarled and snagged by censorship. It’s why two plays at least this year survived by fluke in manuscript, performed only after sometimes substantial rewriting and not even published till the 19th century.


Though popular the work incurred two levels of censorship. One from the Master of Revels – George Buck – who knew the characters involved personally. Then the arguments over Arminianism (basically anti-Calvinism) got a few tweakings.


Over and above, it’s an ideological piece. Massinger was well-known for his proto-Republicanism. Maurice Prince of Orange, victorious over his old ally and mentor the eponymous hero, was also a close ally of James I. Who also hated Arminianism. Too much private conscience. There’s a thrilling sense that though the dice had to be weighted against van Olden Barnavelt, and he deserved censure, yet the arguments ostensibly raised were valid.


There’s a basic division of acts and scenes, suggesting Massinger had a grasp of grand scenes. The opening, and Acts III/2 and IV/5 as well as the outer parts of V/1 are trial and exposition scenes, where van Olden Barnavelt orates sometimes to the distraction of his hearers. Comedy scenes, notably one where three executioners play at dice for the honour, are typically Fletcherian. Here’s a sketch of who wrote what.


Massinger — Act I, scenes 1 and 2; Act II, 1; Act III, 2, 5, and 6; Act IV, 4–5; Act V, 1 (except middle portion);


Fletcher — Act I, scene 3; Act II, 2–6; Act III, 1, 3, and 4; Act IV, 1–3; Act V, 1 (middle portion, from exit of Ambassadors to exit of Provost), 2, and 3.


It’s a rich play: a full exposition drowns the quiddity of how this works on stage.


Basically The Tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt is one of hubris. He’s done the state some service. The first Act has an amplitude and power full of tight-thewed political argument. An old trusted ally and architect of the Dutch State Barnavelt berates the Prince as ‘all names are lost eels’. Tim Frances dominates throughout, a voice both penetrating and rasping with entitlement and jealousy for the man he feels he raised up. There’s no allowance for others’ merits. It’s a terrific barrel of a performance, Frances thrusting himself out, skirling in scorn. He was often almost off the book, which considering the number of lines he has, is remarkable.


Barnavelt’s republicanism as the late Maggy Williams points out in her exemplary detailed and readable notes is perhaps skin deep. Thus his call on tyranny is intended to sound hollow Yet this is Massinger. He wants you to hear the song not the singer. ‘… this Prince of Orange/is but as Barnavelt, a Servant to/Your Lorships, and the State.’


The action’s arch-shaped, with sustained set-pieces in Acts III and IV counterbalanced in Act I with exposition and in Act V a hurtling outfall. It swings towards assaults on towns in Act II, a comic interlude where Arminians with their ‘heresy’ are pilloried, and by Act III with Barnavelt taken moves towards set counsel scenes and then through Act IV family pathos, confrontations, captures, suicide, trial and in Act V, endgames and a flurry of absurdities from preening ambassadors to dicing executioners.


Oliver Senton’s smooth-voiced Leidenberch, ever-obliging, promising everything to beggar yet leaving them empty-handed as a captain notes, is a character who promises less and delivers nothing: but his character. As his fortunes fall – he’s captured in the Arminian stronghold – a pathos and residual gleam of nobility assert themselves. He’s malleable though, and it’s his old mentor who suggests a way out: suicide in III/4. It’s one of the most chilling scenes Fletcher wrote.


His affecting scene with his son in III/2 (Fletcher) and then III/6 (Massinger) reaches a unexpected depth that Senton plummets (Georgia Frost, often playing boys’ roles, is particularly affecting here).


Modesbargen’s wiser and far more circumspect. It’s a portrait of a man who argues against the anti-hero, and holds off. Then grudgingly goes with Barnavelt only to regret it, flee to Germany where the Prince’s men go in black ops to hoik him out again. David Meyer plays this role with a voice permanently attuned to misgiving (save an ill-starred hunting scene), and acts with a rumpled dignity, a true sick-hearted slave approach crossed with someone who twice sees the light and latterly acts on it. but is it too late?


Grotius – in reality a famed theologian – is played more lightly by Mark Oosterveen who returns as the successful dicing executioner – older and more seasoned than his rivals as well as better at dice. It’s a contrast with Grotius Oosterveen relishes.


Dan Abelson as the sardonic and Adam Cunis as the more gung-ho captains often pop up in parts – Cunis as the confident leader of the black ops in Germany and a callow executioner. Abelson’s a more dour Burgher and Provost, acting put-upon roles where a certain weariness befits the role.


James Askill apart from being yet another rather optimistic intellectual playing with danger in the person of Hogerbeets, is Barnavelt’s put-upon son and one of the German hunstmen suddenly confronted with soldiers. And an overweening French ambassador confidently blackmailing the Dutch to spare Barnavelt’s life. Askill’s role is often that of the over-optimistic innocent surprised by events.


Alan Cox takes the Prince of Orange. It’s a role almost as sizeable as Barnavelt’s in weight though he has far fewer lines. Cox layers the part with a kind of patience just holding irritation in check. The dramatists tailored a man their king esteemed as the pattern of all patience and Massinger in the scenes above nails out his provident withholding of reciprocal hostility towards Barnvelt; even when the latter has him barred from his own Council.


Massinger clearly knows what’s at stake, and he’s almost as skillful here as Shakespeare in the 147 lines of Thomas More where he was called in to trouble-shoot a tricky scene. Here it’s tone rather than casuistry and rhetoric that Massinger can claim, but it’s superbly effective. Cox in his leather jacket quells anger with the mildness counseled by Castigilione, and the polity of Machiavelli only when absolutely sure. Barnavelt is popular.


Rhys Bevan’s role as Bredero Lord of the States is crucial. He’s all for acting against Barnavelt and acted as a foil to the Prince’s apparent drive for clemency or to do nothing in haste. Bevan and Cox enact the fiction of a Prince slow to wrath and his separation of his ‘enemy’ from Barnavelt’s role in Council.


As Holderus an Arminian preacher Leo Wan is active and mobile, and as Vandort a more weighty role he seconds Bredero in court inveighing against Barnavelt with policy-making ad entrapment.


James Thorne enjoys several watchful roles like the Prince’s cousin William, Rock-Giles another burgher swayed by Barnavelt. And indeed Barnavelt’s long-suffering servant. He’s one of the would-be executioners too. Mark springer’s tremendously stentorian voice and presence is sued for three captains of the guard. He owns a presence and weight that really fills these parts.


It’s not a play with strong womens’ parts. Emma Denly has much to do in guard duties and as colonel, as well as a smarmy French ambassador and a sympathetic Provost’s wife who with Ableson go to some lengths to convey pears to the afflicted Barnavelt only to be somewhat betrayed by Barnavelt’s wife having secreted a note amongst the pears which is sniffed out. ‘Do not despair’ runs the line, a pun surely.


Denly’s finest role comes as sardonic Englishwoman in Act II, mocking the freedoms of Dutch Arminians Frances Marshall and Georgia Frost. They believe women should rule men and prove it comically. Denly naturally asserting the opposite – this is a comic scene but not a comedy – she enjoys their discomfiture when their little state is overthrown and they look to her for succour. It’s a fine comic scene when every sympathy is with the Dutchwomen. It’s to the credit of all three actors of this anti-feminist scene – as Swinburne saw it as far back as the 1860s – that they manage it with such aplomb.


Marshall apart from sundry guard duties is also Maria van Utrecht, Barnavelt’s long-suffering wife trying to persuade him of wise courses, turbaned in Dutch 17th century style (think Girl With a Pearl Earring). And in her application to French ambassadors. It’s a well-taken scene too, edged with panic and desperation checked by propriety. In such an ensemble the striking thing is that roles like this are taken so completely you don’t consider it’s a reading. Marshall also briefly occupies the gallery space above when supplicants come garlanding the house with flowers: a striking scene showing Barnavelt’s popularity to concealed enemies and an instance of sudden popular vistas as contrast to close quarters and chambers. Finally she’s a hapless Boy at the execution.


Frost as son to Leidenberch is daughter to Barnavelt, though it’s the first role that her gamine role takes on a tragic consequence. Afterwards, the Boy is taken off as it’s assumed he might have been complicit when we know it wasn’t the case.


Rarely has the phrase ‘enough rope to hang himself’ been so wielded as in the trial scene of Barnavelt. Yet even in his overreach Barnavelt remains a magnificent scornful figure, not unlike Coriolanus at several points. Frances bestrides this play necessarily as a colossus. Even this though is upstaged by the executioners’ comedy, and execution scene. The dead Leidenberch is to be hanged too, and the others – including captured Modesbargen – to await the Prince’s pleasure. In fact they’re freed, history tells us.


Frances relishes the pact Barnavelt makes with the successful Executioner of Utrecht, Oosterveen, to lop off his head when he’s loudest, talking to the end and literally ordering his own execution. It’s a fine coup de grace. ‘I come, I come: o gracious heaven: now: now: / Now I present—‘[head struck off]. It’s noted the over-zealous Executioner has lopped off outstretched fingers too. A Fletcherian touch of bathos.


If the conclusion from an attendant lord: ‘farewell, great hart: full low thy strength now lyes, / He that would purge ambition this way dies’ I closure, it’s a temporary one Like the British scene that witnessed it, other powers were abroad.


The cast were universally excellent, and Frances in his magnificence compellingly watchable as well as touching scorn, jealous pettiness and nobility in the same breath. Cox though matches him in their clashes and as his Prince bests Frances’ Barnavelt you can see the two actors calibrate the way the seventy-one-year-old is cornered and crumbles with a kind of majesty. James Wallace can feel justly proud of re-mounting this masterly work: a terrific production.