Thursday, 22 November 2018

Read Not Dead: proving that old plays aren't basket cases

Here are some Brexit campaigners with a hamper of tombola prizes designed to show Michel Barnier that the UK is primed to dominate world markets. Co-opted to their cause is Shakespeare, who plundered European sources for a living. Post-Brexit, Shakespeare will still be exploited for national morale and soft power, despite the damage which a dented economy and lack of free movement will do to the arts in the UK. 

At least Shakespeare doesn't have to carry the whole weight of Brexiters' expectations: he didn't work in a vacuum. For example, doomed resentment, so palpable in the photograph above, drives the anti-hero of The Tragedy of Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger. Performed on 18 November in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, this is one of some 400 early modern plays which Shakespeare's Globe's Read Not Dead team brings to life. 

Philip Massinger
With minimal preparation the uncut plays are performed script-in-hand. There are laughs but, for anyone who saw Peter Brook's 1970 RSC white box production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the raw exposure of the Read Not Dead experience evokes his interpretation of the rude mechanicals' play-within-the-play: this was not the usual Carry-On diversion but a devotional uncovering of the mystery of performance.

Meanwhile the A4 printed scripts take on a life of their own. Can you memorise the odd line and look up - a risk which Tim Frances, triumphant in the title role, got away with? And what about props? With all the page-turning, you can end up waving a pistol like a biro in your spare hand. 

John Fletcher
But when Oliver Senton as Leidenberch, kneeling at the front of the stage, read out his final speech while stabbing himself with a dagger, it was too real for me to watch, and not just because of his performance: there was something terrifying about the script on the floor in front of him, a metaphor for compulsion and inevitability. 

The absence of stage blood - the obvious artifice of which cauterises emotion, to my mind - was another dramatic advantage. (Don't tell me, some people faint at the sight of the fake stuff, I know.) 

I was however able to watch the stylised, slow-motion beheading (for treason) of Sir John: the sword, safely away from his bowed head, preserved tension while severing his connection with the audience so that he could leave the stage, job done.

Portrait by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt
The Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was an historic figure. His nemesis, the Prince of Orange, was played with smooth authority by Alan Cox in this reading. Political and religious intrigues in this hastily-written play echoed divisions at home, so the work was censored before its first performance in 1619, the year of Johan's execution. This revival, directed by James Wallace and including Dan Abelson, James Askill, Rhys Bevan, Adam Cunis, Emma Denly, Georgia Frost, Frances Marshall, David Meyer, Mark Oosterveen, Mark Springer, James Thorne and Leo Wan, was the last in Read Not Dead's season about censorship.

For an image to represent the canon of early modern plays waiting to be aired, I give you the chewing gum patches on the Millennium Bridge outside the Globe. These are regularly embellished by Ben Wilson, the Chewing Gum Artist. As one painted patch fades with the passage of years and footprints, he illuminates another, depicting lives of passers-by from around the world. If you see Ben at work, talk to him for the sake of his humane philosophy.