That’s right! Rather than just boringly decide which play to do next year, we’ll be playing them off against each other, right here on this ’blog, for your pleasure!
Avid regular readers (come on, there are dozens of you, admit it!) will have seen in the last post we hypothesized a number of possible scenarios for The Bacchanals’ activity in 2012. Other People’s Wars opens on April 17 at BATS (why don’t you e-mail them on email@example.com and try and book now?! Go on, it’d be hilarious!), David is hard at work on a new text of The Clouds as you read this (hard at work = drunk in the bath with a book), and the reverse-gender Importance of Being Earnest virtually plays itself, so consider those both a go also. But we’re really keen, after the sublime fun of Julius Caesar, to do another church hall/community centre touring Shakespeare, probably around May/June, but narrowing them down is hard because not every play is an ideal contender.
The requirements are that it be a) low tech, i.e. something that doesn’t need more prop/set items than can be comfortably shoved into a car; b) a decent ensemble piece, or at least a piece where everyone gets one decent role (yeah, Julius Caesar didn’t exactly fulfil that brief, but hey, it had the fun crowd scenes!); c) a tolerable length, i.e. two and a half hours max, as opposed to three plus! Additional desired (but not essential) qualities are that it be a play saying something significant and pertinent about the world at this very moment (well, it’s a given that almost every Shakespeare play does that, but by example: Julius Caesar was always going to be more relevant to Wellington in November 2012 than, say, As You Like It) so we’re looking not so much for the timeless as the topical; it’d be good to have a play that hasn’t been staged in Wellington recently (so no Love’s Labour’s Lost) or won’t be in the International Arts Festival (that said, Troilus and Cressida’s on the shortlist!); and it’d be nice to have a play with decent female roles.
The current shortlist comprises TEN PLAYS, and over the next few weeks (as David re-reads them all with fresh eyes!) we’ll be loosing them on each other, one-on-one, and the play that emerges from each round with its opponent a savaged bloody heap on the floor of the ring will carry on victorious to the next round – the next round being that we’ll read it aloud as a company to see what we think!
ROUND ONE: ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL VERSUS KING JOHN!
All’s Well That Ends Well hails from somewhere around 1602-4, written during a lengthy period of theatre closure due to plague. It’s labelled a ‘Problem Play’ these days and grouped with Measure For Measure and Troilus and Cressida. The misconception is that ‘Problem Play’ means it’s problematic but in fact this is a 19th-century term (popular in terms of describing the works of Shaw and those other lofty long-winded Victorian dramatists) meaning that the plays raise particular moral dilemmas and questions. I’ve always seen them, in my grand theory of Shakespeare as an evolutionary dramatist continually refining the same story, character and thematic ideas, as a trilogy: All’s Well is the first attempt, Measure is the refinement of the ideas, and then Troilus is the subversion. Helena, Isabella and Cressida are all versions of the same unjustly-wronged-by-men women; Bertram, Claudio and Troilus all versions of the same petulant young anti-hero; Parolles, Lucio and Thersites all versions of the same slandering braggart; and the King in All’s Well, the Duke in Measure and Pandarus in Troilus all versions of the same stage-managerial arch-manipulator.
In All’s Well, the orphaned Helena, though lowly-born and female, possesses the medical knowledge that cures the French King of a fatal disease and in recompense he offers her any husband she wishes regardless of class barrier. She chooses Bertram but he is repulsed at the match, enforced by the King, and runs off to Italy on their wedding night saying “’Til I have no wife I have nothing in France”, telling Helena that until she can get the ring off his finger and prove their marriage consummated, he’ll never acknowledge her as his wife. Poor Helena takes all the blame on herself for not being good enough to be worthy Bertram’s love, fakes her own death, follows him to Italy and, in a dry run of the same device used in Measure For Measure, employs a ‘bed-trick’ whereby Bertram thinks he’s sleeping with a hot young Italian virgin, but in fact is sleeping with Helena. The King unravels all the tangled plot elements, Bertram is forced to admit Helena as his wife, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Pros: Strong female roles in Helena, the Countess of Rossillion and Diana; the play has a really lovely pre-Cymbeline fairy tale quality balanced with a post-Twelfth Night melancholy; the subplot involving the gulling of Parolles has a bitterness to it which makes it more possible for us to sympathise with him than we do Lucio in Measure; the ‘public’ scenes overseen by the King are really strong; and the political/martial elements of the plot are straightforward and undistracting rather than convoluted.
Cons: While nicely morally ambiguous, some parts of the play seem a little simplistic/crude compared to their Measure For Measure cousins; the Clown is pretty weak (Lavatch, which I presume is meant to be a variant of La Vache – his name is The Cow!); it’d be a challenge to make Bertram seem a nice guy to 21st century audiences; and little in the way of great poetry or memorable lines.
King John is a hard one to date. In the 1990s I liked Honigmann’s theory that the anonymous 1591 play The Troublesome Raigne of Iohn King of England was not the source for but in fact a Bad Quarto of Shakespeare’s play, putting it in the late-1580s as one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. In the intervening years, my since-developed biographical theory of the trajectory of Shakespeare’s chronology has seen me side with the scholars who put it in 1596, making its attitude to dead sons stem from the death of Shakespeare’s own son that same year. If it’s from Shakespeare’s first phase of playwriting – from his arrival in London in the late-1580s to the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594 – then those early years become very very full (Errors, Two Gents, Shrew, Edward III, Titus Andronicus, the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III at the very least); if it’s from 1596 then it’s the only Shakespeare play of the pre-Globe Lord Chamberlain’s Men that was never published in his lifetime (the 16 plays that appeared for the first time in the 1623 Folio are all either pre-1594 when company allegiance and ownership of playbooks changed regularly, or post-1599 when Shakespeare’s company kept much tighter control over their product). I thought, then, I’d be able to determine stylistically where it fell … but re-reading it this week for the first time in 15 years, I can’t decide because, well, it’s boring as hell. I’d thought my opinion tainted by the hugely unpleasant time I had working on the 1997 Summer Shakespeare (‘King John In The Dell Is Dull’ was the Dominion review’s headline), but reading it with those memories long-distant hasn’t done anything to improve it.
King John, refusing to acknowledge his nephew Arthur as rightful heir to the throne of England, leads an army against King Philip of France, under whose care Arthur and his mother Constance reside. After many long speeches, John and Philip agree that instead of fighting, they’ll marry Philip’s son Lewis to John’s niece Blanche, but immediately after the wedding John gets excommunicated for refusing to appoint the Pope’s preferred candidate as Archbishop of Canterbury, France sides with Rome and there is much fighting. John’s forces win and take Arthur prisoner; John employs Hubert to kill Arthur by blinding him but Hubert relents at the last minute; John has a change of heart and is relieved; but then Arthur falls from the battlements of the castle and dies anyway. Act Five sees more England vs. France fighting while John dies, poisoned by an offstage monk. The play’s most famous character is Philip the Bastard, the Geordie illegitimate child of Lady Faulconbridge and Richard the Lionheart, who stands in the background of the crowd scenes and army stand-offs being a smartarse, gets several soliloquies, and finishes the play with a rousing patriotic nationalistic speech.
Pros: the scene where Hubert fails to murder Arthur is great – “Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?” – and Constance has some lovely speeches – “Grief fills the room up of my absent child”. Plenty of nice epic rhetoric and triple isocolons aplenty.
Cons: Nice epic rhetoric and triple isocolons make for good reading, but they don’t necessarily make for a great play. I’d remembered the Bastard as being a great character but he actually comes across as a thug and bully, and his soliloquies make him seem simple, not complex. I think the only way to adequately deal with King John is to treat it as the 1997 Summer Shakespeare did: create a production of visual spectacle, full of vivid costumes and set-pieces, giant battle scenes, music, pyrotechnics and lighting effects, to disguise the fact that as a text it is excruciatingly boring.
THE VERDICT: do vivid costumes and set pieces, giant battle scenes, music, pyrotechnics and lighting effects to disguise a boring text sound like a Bacchanals show to you? Let’s go for moral ambiguity and bed-tricks over hot-poker-in-the-eleven-year-old’s-eyes. All’s Well That Ends Well defeats King John easily and goes through to Round Two, while King John sinks back into obscurity. Sorry John, I’ll take you off the shelf again in another 15!
Next time: Round Two – Edward III versus Troilus and Cressida! Can the Black Prince defeat the mighty Ajax? Which is seedier – Troilus’ seduction of Cressida or Edward’s seduction of the Countess of Salisbury? Place your bets now!