Review: Shakespeare in London by Hannah Crawforth, Sarah Dustagheer and Jennifer Young

Shakespeare in LondonThis review first appeared in the August 2015 issue of History Today.

The world might be forgiven for rolling its eyes at the prospect of another book on Shakespeare. Does Shakespeare in London, the latest addition to the Bloomsbury Arden list,  have anything new to say? The answer is a confident yes.

Shakespeare in London is a short book with big ambitions. It weaves together various narratives – Shakespeare’s London career, a physical journey west to east across early-modern London – with vivid readings of eight plays, each of which is used to explore aspects of London life around the turn of the 17th century. So, for example, the book opens with an account of Titus Andronicus, relating it to the culture of punishment, bloodshed and retribution embodied in the site of Tyburn.

The process is not without its difficulties. Where the Merchant of Venice, say, can be mapped closely onto an examination of the law, or King Lear onto early modern ideas of medicine and madness, the approach taken to Romeo & Juliet – marrying it to the domestic wealth and power evident in the great riverside mansions on the Strand – is more subtle, perhaps even metaphorical.

But on balance the flexibility of that approach is one of the book’s greatest strengths. The fact that the book is a wholly collective effort and each chapter is co-authored by all three authors seems commendably appropriate to the collaborative working practices of the theatre they describe.

Shakespeare is one of the least literal of the early modern playwrights. Whereas the work of Jonson, say, or Middleton gains strength and purpose from its precise and detailed evocation of contemporary London, Shakespeare is characteristically more elusive – evasive, even.

The authors both capture and, in some ways, mirror that trait: reflecting on Shakespeare’s writing at the Globe they self-consciously echo their own description of early-modern London as being always and never the same.

The society revealed here, whether focusing on religion or scientific experimentation or economics, is one undergoing a seismic collision of values. Innovation is competing with tradition; modernity with the memorially fixed. This is, of course, as true of the material city, in which the great monastic houses had been repurposed into mansions – as well as the odd theatre or two – if not torn down all together, as it is of the multitude of ideas the city contains.

The book is clearly aimed at a general audience and, as such, benefits greatly from the bold decision to dispense with the compulsive hat-tipping and knee-bending to the vast array of literary critics that so bedevils much contemporary academic writing. That is not to say that the text is unacademic – the ideas and insights of others are scrupulously noted where relevant and there is an excellent selection of further reading and works cited at the end. But the writers’ decision has freed them to create a more allusive, thought-provoking and approachable work that should be required reading for any undergraduate student of early-modern English literature.

Shakespeare in London offers useful insights into Shakespeare’s work and his working practices. But it is also a wonderful, wide-ranging introduction to the richness and complexity of late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean society. It would be instructive reading for anyone, including young historians, although its play-by-play structure might sadly alienate those outside the silo of English studies who are less engaged by the literary culture.

 

Shakespeare, the Blackfriars and the theatre of experience

It has always bemused me that there is so little formal – or, for that matter, informal – dialogue and collaboration between historians and literary scholars. Each are aware of the others’ work, certainly; but the intellectual, cultural and administrative inheritances that maintain the academic silos of schools and faculties surely seem increasingly outdated in a 21st-century, hyper-connected world.

But each discipline has much to learn from the other about the way our ancestors explained the world and their place in it to themselves, how they negotiated that place with one another, and more generally about how meaning is shaped and expressed over time through language, thought and action.

In particular, I would argue that only inter-disciplinary approaches can hope to recover the human experiences of the past, the texture of each now, the resonance of the senses for historical actors whose lives we tend otherwise reduce to mere thought.

I was thinking about this while rereading a couple of Shakespeare’s later plays recently, specifically Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale. Both were among the plays Shakespeare’s company performed at its indoor theatre, itself created out of part of the Great Hall of the former Blackfriars priory.
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The Massacre At Paris: Kit Marlowe, the Rose Playhouse and me

massacreAs some friends may know, I spent last week acting in the final six performances of The Dolphin’s Back production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris at the Rose Playhouse on London’s South Bank. The offer to do so came out of the blue, so much so that – as much out of surprise as anything – I initially said no.

I had seen the director James Wallace’s previous, superb revival of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon – also at the Rose – and we had got chatting after the show about early-modern drama and such. He said that he was looking for someone to play the part of Peter Ramus (actually Pierre de la Ramée), the humanist scholar; his original choice was unavailable for health reasons and James himself was playing the part until someone else came along. For reasons that are still obscure to me, James thought that someone might be me. I think the idea of a scholar (which I suppose I am, loosely) playing a scholar – perhaps particularly one who dies a bloody and painful death – amused him.

And he may have calculated that a novice’s blind terror at performing might not appear too amiss in a character who spends most of his brief life on stage being threatened with daggers, swords and a sickle.

I have, I should make clear to you, no acting experience. I may not have made that entirely clear to James. The last time I can remember acting in anything was a school production of Toad of Toad Hall. I was twelve and I played a policeman and hated every brief and brightly lit second of the experience.

Nevertheless, overnight I reconsidered my firm no.

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History Today column: How chances it they travel?

One of the many criticisms leveled at Michael Gove’s revision of the history curriculum was that is would reduce lessons to little more than the recitation and memorializing of facts, to what Sir Philip Sidney called ‘the bare was of history. But the simpler a statement of fact is, the more it deceives us of its certainty – and particularly so when facts are strung together like prayer beads to form a providential narrative of national greatness, as Gove’s vision did.

The problem we have as historians is that such narratives – themselves almost indistinguishable from myths – have a tenacity that genuine history with its caveats and lacunae struggles to overcome. And in practice the seductiveness of their clarity only serves to provide the past with a more subtle oblivion than mere erasure. Once the glass is cloudy, it is impossible to clean.

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John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship: an interview with Andy Kesson

Lyly coverLast week saw the launch of Andy Kesson’s brilliant new book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, which makes an eloquent and powerful case for both the quality of Lyly’s work and its importance to early modern literature as we understand it. It is full of fascinating insights into literary and print culture and commerce and I urge anyone who is interested in the period to read it.

Born in 1554, Lyly is best remembered today for Eupheus, the Anatomy of Wit his 1578 prose fiction which seems to have taken London and the court by storm. “All our ladies were then his scholars,” it was later said, “and that beauty at court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.”

But that fashionable success has in many respects served to damn him for generation after generation of literary critics. Lyly would abandon prose and become arguably the most successful playwright of the 1580s, writing under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford for the boy companies at the Blackfriars and later at St Paul’s. His reputation though, more than most, suffers from his not being Shakespeare: in literary history Lyly is usually cast simply as a writer whose superficial popularity and wit was superseded by Shakespeare’s greater art. It reflects a dismally Darwinian approach to culture, to say the least; but it is one which Andy’s book is sure to help rectify.

I wasn’t able to make the launch – fittingly held at the Globe Theatre – but a couple of months ago Andy was kind enough to sit down with me over a coffee or two in Paddington for a wide-ranging discussion about Lyly and early modern culture.

ML: I was reading GK Hunter’s article on Lyly in the DNB before I came. I must have read it before but I was struck this morning by the thunderous snobbery of its tone. There’s a moment when Hunter talks about Lyly’s reputation towards the end of the sixteenth century and, to support his thesis that Lyly was no longer fashionable, he has to dismiss Lyly’s evident continuing popularity with the reading public by, essentially, dismissing the entire reading public itself. “Euphues continued to be reprinted (twenty editions of the two parts were printed before the end of the century), but its admirers were no longer at the top of the social scale.”

When you look at it, the way Hunter attempts to hide those twenty editions in parenthesis is sleight-of-hand of the lowest order.

AK: Lyly’s modern editors still say [that sort of thing] very frankly. Scholars of rhetoric say that sort of thing all the time. It’s being read; but it’s being read by the wrong sort of people. It is extraordinary.

ML: Why do you think they say that?

AK: Hunter says elsewhere that Lyly’s tragedy was that he descended into the market and made a fool of himself.

ML: Is it just academic snobbery?

AK: It’s a way of defending the literary canon that scholars prefer to sanction. I think the reason people say that sort of thing goes back to the nineteenth century. There’s a very clear reception process for Lyly. In 1632 Edward Blount edits six Lyly plays, the six core comedies, and writes a preface which claims how important Lyly was to the Elizabethan period.

Lyly is then essentially not read for a hundred years.
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Sex, money and morality: Thomas Middleton’s A Trick To Catch The Old One

Trick posterFew people would disagree that Shakespeare’s shadow has served to obscure a great number of superb plays and playwrights. But Thomas Middleton has a good case for being the most unjustly neglected of them all. I was delighted to discover, therefore, that Mercurius, the independent production company run by my friend Jenny Eastop, was planning to stage Middleton’s rarely performed 1608 comedy A Trick To Catch The Old One at the Rose Theatre this May.

Jenny kindly agreed to take time out from rehearsals to discuss the play, the production and Middleton’s reputation generally.

For those who don’t know about Mercurius, could you give me some background to the company and its aims?
After 20 years as a director, being given plays to direct, I had a list of my own choice of plays I wanted to direct and the only solution seemed to be to start my own company. So I set up Mercurius in 2012, launching the company with a collection of Chekhov’s Vaudeville sketches translated and adapted by Michael Frayn at the Brockley Jack. This was successful enough for us to transfer it to Jermyn Street Theatre in 2013 and return there with it, as a co-production with Jermyn Street, in January 2014. In between Mercurius also produced Moliere’s School for Wives in a great modern version by Neil Bartlett at The White Bear in 2013 which received two Offie (Off West End Award) nominations for Best Director for myself and Best Actor for the lead Tom Barratt. A Trick to Catch the Old One is the fifth outing for Mercurius and our first time at The Rose Playhouse which is a fascinating venue, being performed in and amongst the foundations of the 1587 Philip Henslowe playhouse.

What attracted you to A Trick To Catch The Old One?
I specialised in Renaissance Theatre at university and did my thesis on Thomas Middleton so I’ve always been fascinated by his very modern, satirical take on life and his vibrant language. I particularly like his city comedies and edited A Trick to Catch the Old One some years ago for the National Theatre Studio, workshopping it for an in-house performance with some of the National Theatre company which was a great experience and made me determined to direct a fully staged version one day. It’s taken a while but I was delighted to revisit the play and my edited version.

Can you tell me something about the production?
I have made some pretty drastic cuts to the text. Partly to reduce the size of the company and cut down on potentially confusing doubling and partly to reduce the length of the play, this version runs at 1 hour 25 minutes without an interval. The cuts have removed the subplot involving Dampit and Gulf (which is a shame as the play shows arguably the first alcoholic on stage) and the peripheral characters of Lucre’s wife and Hoard’s niece’s suitors and the battle to net her. In cutting it the play does lose a little of its texture but it focuses much more clearly on the wild central plot to pass the Courtesan off as a rich widow as it spins out of Witgood’s control. I’ve updated the play to the modern age but placed it in the late 1940s during the days of rationing and desperate black market dealings to bring out the power of money and the gullibility of those who pursue it running through society in an age when so many were in a desperate scramble to survive and prosper.

What attracted you to the space at The Rose?
There are some very interesting performance spaces in London but The Rose really does hold a trump card. I like the simplicity of the wooden three sided stage that means the production has to be plainly staged, allowing the power of the story and the experiences of the characters to be the central focus. I also like the intense atmosphere of the dark underground flooded ruins, it feels unlike any other stage space. But above everything is the very moving sense of creating something amongst the foundations of Philip Henslowe’s 1587 playhouse. It is hard not to feel the baton being passed down the generations of theatre when you see something at The Rose on the very site where so many of our greatest plays were first performed.

Middleton seems to be slowly receiving his due as a writer for the stage. What do you think is distinctive about his work?
I liked Middleton from when I first came across him for his very modern attitude to life and human relationships. He uses very direct language with little poetry and few similes. His city comedies in particular really do hold a clear mirror up to the everyday audience of his, and our, time. Alongside Jonson he presented vice and immorality on stage in order to comment on what was happening in society, but unlike Jonson’s more obvious use of grotesques he pursues a much more naturalistic, ironic tone. He never applauds immorality but neither does he roundly condemn it, in Women Beware Women Leantio explains his behaviour by claiming “though sin be death, I had died if I had not sinned”. Middleton seems to understand the difficulties and complications of life.

What challenges have you found in staging A Trick To Catch The Old One?
The joy of a Middleton play is how clear the language is, how naturalistic and believable the characters are and how modern the dilemmas that fox them so the challenges in staging it are no more difficult than with a modern play. The only real challenge is making sure we tell the story clearly enough so the audience can follow the twists and turns of the various fiendish plots.

Why do you think Middleton – and A Trick… in particular – has been neglected for so long?
Middleton was viewed suspiciously for many years because of his down-to-earth, direct approach to the way people live their lives. His serious plays were neglected because they had no grand sweeping sense of tragedy and the profound importance of what was happening to the characters. The Revenger’s Tragedy had its first production in centuries as late as 1966 because it was seen as too farcical to be taken seriously. But this is precisely why I like Middleton, he is almost Chekhovian in his acknowledgement of how ridiculous life can be and how something tragic to the person involved can seem unimportant farce to an onlooker. His comedies suffer similarly in not carrying a message about how we should judge the characters but simply presents them and their lives as normal.

For those who don’t know the play, what have they been missing?
Firstly the play is very funny. The plot is incredibly inventive and subverts lots of our expectations of how people will behave and what will be the outcome. It is satirical and ironic but contains at its heart a real warmth towards its characters, they’re conning each other viciously but in the end they are family and neighbours; however outrageously the characters behave it is hard to end up hating any of them.

The play is – very broadly – about the scrabble for status and financial security in a dog-eat-dog world of debt and deceit. Everyone is complicit; no-one is innocent. The Victorians, in particular, thought the play amoral. Is that your take on it too?
Middleton was seen as very immoral for a long time because he didn’t write messages of moral indignation into his plays and openly condemns no-one, he has no righteous characters who act as spokesmen for morality. His characters are realistic and drawn from the world the audience would know well, there are none of the stock comic characters of the time, the stage-usurer or greedy father/uncle are shown as real people here. At the end of the play bad behaviour goes unpunished and the revealing of foolishness is merely accidental, not done in order to bring anyone to a realisation of their folly. It would be easy to see this as Middleton embracing immorality and celebrating greed however his ironic detachment and dispassionate presentation of vice allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. The very realism of the characters brings home to the audience the acceptance of vice as normal and leads to powerful satire, arguably a more successful way of conveying a message than open indignation.

How difficult are the play’s sexual politics for contemporary audiences?
The women are seen as commodities to be chased for financial gain in the play, which could be uncomfortable if they weren’t very strong characters in their own right. The Courtesan revels in the power her supposed wealth gives her over her suitors and is as much, if not more, in control of the wild plots to get Witgood’s money and land back, she is in places the one driving Witgood on. Even Hoard’s Niece, chased by so many of the characters as a golden prize, sees a chance to use Hoard’s feast as her wedding dinner and seizes it to save money. The women use the only possession they have, their availability for marriage and sex, to give them real control over their destiny. Each of the characters use all means at their disposal to prosper, and at the end the women and men in the various marriages seem like well matched equals.

What are your ambitions for Mercurius?
At the moment I’m just really enjoying the chance to direct those plays on my list that have built up. In the near future I’m hoping to revive the production of School for Wives, possibly at Jermyn Street Theatre, and direct another Middleton City comedy. In the longer term I’d like to be able to get proper funding for Mercurius, either through subsidy or private sponsorship, to be able to extend our creative vision and be more artistically adventurous, something that needs a bigger budget than we have at present!

A Trick To Catch The Old One runs at the Rose Playhouse from 6th to 24th May. Please click here for more information and to book tickets.

Review: Elizabeth I and her people – National Portrait Gallery exhibition

Elizabeth exhibitionThose whose interest lies outside the Tudor era could be forgiven for exasperation at the extent to which the long sixteenth century still dominates our nation’s cultural life. But the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Elizabeth I and Her People, which runs until January 5 2014 – is nevertheless good enough to excite the curiosity of even the most stubborn Tudor-phobe; and for those of us who find the period particularly fascinating, it is a delight.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, both chief curator and 16th-Century curator at the gallery. She is the author of the recent Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, 1540-1620, and her interest in the representation of lives outside the courtly elite is evidenced throughout.

Late Tudor England grew into an economic powerhouse, based on a flourishing mercantile culture, the increasing financial heft of the City of London and the political and religious stability – relatively speaking – of the Elizabethan state. And this middling sort, aspiring, ambitious, self-conscious, are superbly represented here.

A trio of portraits, for instance, reveals the Wittewronghele, family – father, mother and son – who established a prosperous brewing business in the capital. Thomas Gresham – arguably the most brilliant financier of the 16th century – is here. We see, too, the court portraitist George Gower, who chooses to be painted holding the tools of his trade – the brush and palette – rather than with something that might represent a claim on family title or another, more obviously self-aggrandising, social status. The times were changing. Trade itself was becoming respectable.

But beyond the portraiture, we also see something of the texture of people’s lives. There is some wonderful Tudor clothing here, from a seaman’s cloak to a superbly detailed woman’s waistcoat. And there is much, much more: a tankard inscribed with ‘Think and Thank’, surely the 16-century equivalent of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; a pristine set of drawing instruments; pins, without which many Tudor garments wear simply unwearable; an intricately carved ivory comb featuring the Judgement of Paris and David’s message to Bathsheba; and so on.

For many, perhaps, the portraits will still be the point, and one room is given over to those of Elizabeth herself, including Hilliard’s sumptuous ‘Ermine’ Portrait. Even here, though, the exhibition is careful to delineate between the kind of representations that would have been available to the different strata of society, from the full length paintings that hung in noble houses, through the more modest copies owned by members of the gentry, down to the portraits that every person in the country had access to. When Elizabeth I recalled the coinage early in her reign, she became the first English monarch to sit for the image that represented her on her currency: it was a powerful statement of intent.

There is, too, a room of portraits of courtiers and nobleman. Again, however, the exhibition goes beyond representations of mere power, to offer a more unconventional and human perspective on the way portraiture embodied a kind of power – but also a negotiation with it. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, appears in – in context – a shockingly private portrait of herself in a bedgown beside her dressing table. She had been one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour and her marriage to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the year before had caused controversy at court resulting in her banishment.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whose ward Wriothesley had been, had wanted him to marry his own daughter. He is pictured here, mostly likely in his lost palace at Theobalds in Essex, somewhat charmingly athwart a donkey among some strawberry plants, as if to plead with his queen for the quiet pleasure of a country life away from the explosive tensions and rivalries of the court.

Last but not least, Sir Walter Ralegh is here, in 1588 at the very height of his power and influence. The gallery’s restorers have revealed a hidden detail in the portrait: a sea beneath the sway of the moon. It was a trope Ralegh used often in describing his own, often tempestuous, relationship with Elizabeth and here it affirms his subjection to her. He looks, if truth be told, exhausted. And perhaps he was. The tumults of the Tudor era took their toll on winners and losers alike.