FringeReview UK 2019
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 Look About You was directed by John Hopkins. The next RND is on September 7th at Shoreditch, St Leonard’s Church where many actors were buried and which is near the site of the Theatre, the Globe’s predecessor. Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Captain. After that Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd will appear back at the Wanamaker but on a Tuesday, 24th September. And the very Sunday after that (the 29th) also at the Wanamaker, Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of the Earl of Huntingdon.
So who’s the hero of the anonymous 1600 Look About You? Aruhan Galieva’s Young Robin, all of 17, jumps off his horse reins still smoking as the copious stage directions suggest – in a publication reflecting prompt-copy to navigating 29 characters. Robin’s doffing a disguise.
So’s the hermit he visits, who’s really the murderous Skink, guilty of killing king’s mistress ‘red-cheeked Rosamund… Queene’ on behalf of another Queen, Eleanor or Elinor (a magnificently poison-spitting Hilary Tomes); who has a prior claim to Henry II, namely marriage. Greg Haiste’s uproarious Skink supplies some of the gustiest lines of this gusty play.
So is it Skink? Perhaps, though being villainous he’s more a second-lead. Or is it dotard Henry II (forget history or The Lion in Winter, though Eleanor and her sons jostle just the same)? David Whitworth though he ends the ‘pleasant comedy’ begins roundly usurped by eldest son young Henry, taciturn snarling Elliot Fitzpatrick. Who’s also not omnipresent, and like his father only appears at court. There’s a case for David Ricardo Pearce’s dashing, thoroughly decent if lecherous Richard. He cuts a greater dash even than Robin, in heldentenor voice. And Rhys Bevan’s John – a handsomely baritonal proto-villain – matches him in glamour with a serrated edge.
So is it Henry Junior’s bugbear Robert, Earl of Gloucester? Warmer. Alan Cox’s dignified but fantastical Earl of dark corners really does look about him, snatching all sorts of disguises (including Prince John’s redcoat jacket) to sow confusion and literally keep his head.
Look About You the play keeps reminding us. And you do; everyone’s disguising themselves in everyone else’s clothes and two imposters regularly deceive themselves and each other simultaneously. The best example is fast-friends Robin and Gloucester, both disguised, both drawing swords on someone they assume to be someone else; and disguised Richard joining in. And two moments when two friars (Gloucester and Skink) with everyone double-taking invokes Feydeau avant-la-farce.
Though cited as a response to Anthony Munday’s two Earl of Huntingdon plays from 1598, it’s a strange one. A nominal prequel, it finds Robin at 17 barely out of page-dom, though with influence. More, he’s already at court, and though he aids virtuous fugitives he possesses little of that fluid licence granted to others such as the Earl of Gloucester and above all Skink. He disguises himself; so do half the cast. He’s Robin before Robin, apprenticed to outlaw earls.
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.
This rehearsed reading of Look About You is slightly unusual. Two of RND’s regular directors (James Wallace, Jason Morell) grace the cast, and it’s directed by John Hopkins – usually a main draw here as actor: a burnished voice seen recently in The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys for instance, with a presence that draws. So it’s the greatest tribute to him to say he wasn’t missed as an actor. His chosen cast had not a weak link, all spoke with the vocal ring of a first-rate production; there were more than a few revelations. It’s one of the two or three finest RNDs I’ve seen; one RND-going theatre director feels the same.
The pace Hopkins sets for his 15-strong ensemble cracks with dispatch and electricity throughout nearly all the three-plus hours, navigating props – sword, chairs, crowns, discarded garments including John’s British army redcoat. The only space not used, curiously, is the balcony, for which there’s real opportunity. That’s the only let-down: no-one slithering down the ropes. In a play demanding props, Hopkins keeps these to a pace-led minimum.
Fitzpatrick’s Henry junior (a wannabe Henry III) bullies Whitworth’s almost mute Henry II into denouncing Cox’s Gloucester. Luckily however Gloucester avoids arrest till the very end, often abetted by teen idol Robin (Galieva’s gallant lithe-leaping lord) and Haiste’s shape-shifting Skink.
Skink might also be a Richard III with a happy ending (for him) as he confesses at the start after seeing Robin. There’s rapid interpolations as Skink confides in a comic side-glance:
Up, spur the kicking Jade, while I make speede
To Conjure Skinke out of his Hermits weede;
Lye there religion, keep thy M. grave…
Heere lys the Hermit whom I dying found…
I saw him the ready way to heaven,
I helpt him forward, t’was a holy deed;
And there he lyes some sixe foote in the ground,
Since when, and since, I kept me in his weedes.
O what a world of fooles have fill’d my Cell;
For Fortunes, run-awaies, stolne goods, lost cattle,
Among the number…
It’s a virtuoso speech Haiste delights in, quickly alert to audience ire (‘t’was a holy deed’) turning it to laughter. Skink’s protean presence energizes throughout: answering a queen’s bidding, he’s relatively prince-proof.
We follow Cox’s Gloucester keeping one step ahead with Robin’s help; Robin abetting Richard then defeating him in his attempt on Emily Tucker’s virtuous but aroused Lady Marian Fauconbridge. She’s married to Sir Richard – Ian Redford’s memorably avuncular performance makes you believe his force and hypocritical jealousy. Fauconbridge’s attempt to woo his own disguised wife (sunglasses here) takes the sting out of her later admitting to Richard that when old Sir Richard dies she’ll swap one Richard for another.
Richard meanwhile finds himself wooing… Robin who’s been asked by Lady Marian to cross-dress as her. So a fine period touch turned inside-out: Galieva plays a teenage youth impersonating a woman. There’s a Merry Wives touch too when Robin, Marion, Richard and several others peer round the door to laugh at Fauconbridge’s discomfiture as his wife flicks off her shades.
So Robin’s one goodie able to summon 2,000. Hopkins manages factioned court scenes by placing old Henry slightly stage-right with goodies at his right hand, the others sinister clustering round Tomes’ Elinor. There’s antiphonal tension too where James Wallace’s Earl of Lancaster, Robert Mountford’s Chester and Morell’s Leicester come in with choric maledictions.
Mountford though glories in his role as the Fauconbridges’ dour servant Block, thwarted by turns but able to spin advantage. Indeed when backing against unexpected wood and not an open door he quips ‘this never happens at Stratford!’ garnering huge laughs: even ad-libs sparkle in this production. Everyone’s wired.
If Morell’s also a luckless Constable apprehending main characters who proceed to escape, as is Mountford’s Warden of the Fleet, Tomes’ Porter of the Fleet is cursed – Porter’s blamed for each escape. Her son Redcap though finds in Robert Heard a fine study in stammer – mentored by a period-disability-aware actor, studying the text’s indication of stammer-patterns. It’s a memorably affecting performance too.
There’s another poignant portrait in a tavern. Nicole Bird’s Pursuivant (carrying a Pardon for the Fleet’s officers) collapses after a drink. Skink’s drugged her, ordering Whitworth’s cowering Drawer to: ‘Do you hear, bring sugar in white paper, not in brown.’ Then adds white stuff. Bird declares it’s her first job and there’s repeated reference to this character – emphasizing justice even for apprentices on minimum wage.
Elsewhere Fitzpatrick slips his surly Henry role as Sheriff, Wallace as Humphrey a sad second servant to Fauconbridge (so named because the actor’s name was Humphrey), Bird as Page strumming a mandolin, and Henry’s more silent Young Queen. Heard though bookends gender fluidity – as the dastardly John’s long-suffering Isabel, suffering a kiss. 29 characters, 15 actors, a dark farce shot through with high seriousness.
Never more so than at the end where some improbable volte-face suggests either As You Like It was in Anon’s mind or visa versa. Young Henry’s change of heart echoes the hostile Duke’s at the edge of Arden. With everyone inspired by his example (Richard to the Holy Land, Gloucester and Skink to fight in Spain) it’s virtue grafted on a piece marked by irreverence and dancing on the grave of dispatched hermits. How far we’ve come.
There’s revelations here, Galieva and Heard, with the vocally crystalline and thrilling Pearce, Bevan and Fitzpatrick as the princes. Haiste is a tour-de-force, with such regulars as Wallace, Morell, Tucker, Tomes, Bird and (if less often) Redford and Whitworth in one play a luxury.
But it’s perhaps Cox’s play and details – telling off a mimic rosary as he prays, eye and ear cocked to audience – are delicious. Gloucester’s character range is wider than most, and Cox captures too his essential nobility, never more so than the cliff-hanger offer of sacrifice of his hand at the end.
At 3 hours 25 including 15 minutes interval this is one of RND’s longest, but didn’t seem it. Exceptional and vibrant, the company prove it’s one to revive.