Theatre in ‘Season’: Stratford and the Globe in 2005

Neil Forsyth
University of Lausanne

Forsyth, Neil. "Theatre in ‘Season’: Stratford and the Globe in 2005". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006):15.1-20 <URL:>.

  1. Both Shakespeare’s New Globe (as it presently calls itself) and the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford now have what they call ‘seasons’. In 2001, for example, a series of plays performed at the Globe were marketed together as a ‘Celtic’ season. There was a Macbeth in evening dress set to twenties music and obsessed with inventing catchy staging ideas (including a brand new B and Q bucket which various characters brought on and passed round, and which one of the murderers actually kicked when he killed Macduff’s son). There was a Lear that functioned as a disappointing vehicle for Julian Glover, and in which the audience looked forward to the return on stage of Edmund the villain or the Fool as George Formby, banjo and all. Only the Cymbeline, with just six actors all dressed in off-white silk, was movingly worth watching. Obviously the plays had nothing to do with each other apart from their setting in ancient Britain: the ‘Celtic’ season was pure hype. Since then, though, the concept has developed. In 2003, there was a much better series topically grouped around the idea of ‘Regime Change’, a phrase much in the air at the time because of the second Gulf War. That ‘season’ included both a fine ‘modern practices’ version of Dido, Queen of Carthage, Marlowe’s rarely performed first play, in which its garden of the gods became a children’s playground, and a splendid ‘original practices’ production of Richard II. The latter play was then filmed live on BBC television, the only time the Globe has allowed this, and made for a refreshing experiment both as television and as filmed theatre. Mark Rylance’s Richard played to the great strength of the Globe, its ability to involve the audiences and make them laugh.

  2. This year, there have been several fine linked productions at both main Shakespeare venues. Stratford too has taken up the ‘seasons’ idea with an anniversary 2005 ‘Gunpowder Season’ at the Swan. Under this rubric, Gregory Doran put together a grouping of rarely performed and politically sensitive plays. And the Globe welcomed its patrons to a Season of the World and the Underworld, which gave the excellent Mark Rylance a last chance to air his bizarre, mystical views in the programme. He imagines, he tells us, that for the Greeks the underworld ruled by Hades or ‘dusky Dis’ was like what we call quotidian ‘reality’. On the other hand what he means by ‘the World’ was ruled by the great mother goddess Demeter or Ceres, and was a kind of dream.  He informs us in his characteristic style that this ‘World’ corresponded to a parallel life in which ‘the seemingly accidental events and sensations of life have a psychological meaning — as in our dreams: allegorical, non-sensible, asleep, discernible by our soul in a poetic, fabulous, mythological manner.’

  3. Fortunately, as many of us have gratefully recognized over the years, this kind of claptrap has no obvious impact on Rylance as actor or director, and I am sorry to see him go. His 1999 all-male Antony and Cleopatra remains one of my most pleasurable memories of Shakespeare performance. 2005 was his last season, and he now gives way as artistic director to Dominic Dromgoole, who believes, unlike Rylance, that Shakespeare of Stratford was the actual author of the plays that have come down to us under his name. For his final season, Rylance put on a new play, The Fall of Man by Jack Shepherd, which uses masks and enacts the story of Adam and Eve as classical Greek drama; but chiefly he has staged three of Shakespeare’s romances as a group: the various daughters lost between two worlds and found again are apparently what inspired those Jungian mythological fantasies about the great mother.

  4. One of these three plays exploited the potential of the Globe for spectacular staging. Pericles gave us characters flying through the air on ropes, making use even of the high galleries for take-off. The production also included a lot of pushing and shoving, a Chorus who added several witty remarks to what Shakespeare or his collaborator wrote, and a fine comic performance by Marcello Magni as King Simonides. Magni is the husband of what the Globe calls the ‘Master of Play’ Kathryn Hunter, and he comes from the ‘Théatre de Complicité’. This overlap between two powerful modern theatre concepts made for an exciting  experience. (Complicité’s magnificent Measure For Measure is to return to the National Theatre in February 2006, and should not be missed.) The most far-reaching discovery in the Globe experiment since its opening has been the potential for comedy in unlikely places, and this has come largely from interaction with the audience, which this production of Pericles exploited to the full. The narrator figure, Gower, got unusual emphasis as he played the audience for all the laughs he could.

  5. But unexpected comedy has also disrupted many plays. That 2001 Lear was stolen by its less significant moments: by Michael Gould's Edmund, who began his great bastardy speech halfway up a pole within the audience, and later invited the delighted crowd to vote on whether he should go with Regan or Goneril; by the knights having a kick-about as ‘base football-players’ among the groundlings; and by John McEnery’s excellent George Formby-style Fool. Among the lines that unfortunately got laughs were Lear's "O, let me not be mad"; Gloucester's "Alack, I have no eyes"; and even, in the normally grim final act, the by-now unavoidably comic Edmund's reaction to the news of Goneril's and Regan's deaths. It was great fun, but it meant that all Glover felt he could do to impose his desperately tragic story on the play was to shout.

  6. In this 2005 season The Winter’s Tale was similarly disrupted by unintended laughter. The audience, when I saw the play at least, simply did not believe the rapid transformation of Leontes into a jealous freak, and laughed at him. This might have been the right reaction to someone behaving like this in what we (not Rylance) call ‘reality’, but it ruined the play. Paul Jesson must have been used to this reaction, because he desperately tried to play down the melodramatic dimensions of his role as foolish tyrant and then saddened victim. But the damage was done. Not to take the play seriously means the statue scene fails, since the audience is not able by then to experience the shift to another level of imaginative engagement, and no production that allows that to happen can work. Even the brown and flat production of the play that occupied part of the first full season at the Globe in 1997 made this scene work: the chatty tourists and bored students gradually fell silent as the statue came onto stage and imposed itself. They could tell as if by another sense that something magical was about to happen. This change owed a lot to Claire van Kampen’s music, which used the sound of medieval psalters to reinforce the new mood. ‘Tis required you do awake your faith’, says Paulina, to Leontes and more especially to the audience. It is an especially important moment for the actor to control the mood of the audience, but it will not work if, as in 2005, we are waiting for the next cue to laugh. On the night I was there, Paulina’s great line provoked an embarrassed titter.

  7. Rylance’s farewell performance for the Globe, meanwhile, was another Tempest. Unfortunately, the exciting ideas that governed this production proved to be well beyond most members of the audience, who drifted away steadily throughout the evening. Three actors played all the parts, with no change of costume. Even if you knew the play well, this staging could be confusing. The programme notes explained it, but it still mystified most of the audience, who gave up gradually on trying to sort out what was happening, why certain actors suddenly modified their accents or held a rope, which often but not always signified a change of part or scene. The comic propensities of the Globe unfortunately meant that even Rylance was better as Stephano the drunken butler than as Prospero ending his revels. There were, indeed, one or two appropriate enough comic moments for Prospero, and yet the hidden relationships in the play that the limitation to three actors might bring out (Sebastian/Antonio as the dark side of Prospero, for example) tended to get lost in the confusion. But once you realized what was going on, it was wonderfully stimulating. Ferdinand, for example, doubled with Caliban. There were times when the rope idea was used to wonderful effect, as when Miranda somehow went through the rope and became Ariel. And as Prospero said, ‘this rough magic I here abjure’, he pushed the rope away. Magic and theatre were both left behind at the same time. At the end, the rope fell down. It was all about magic and imagination, as one of my friends put it.

  8. The excitements of the 2005 Stratford ‘season’ were, as usual, quite different from the Globe’s. The RSC’s ‘Gunpowder Season’ is, they tell us, an offshoot of its successful 2002-3 ‘Jacobethan’ Season, in which little known or rarely performed plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries drew the crowds and won awards, first in the Swan at Stratford and then at the Gielgud on Shaftesbury Avenue. That season included the remarkable The Roman Actor by Philip Massinger, a sort of travel play by John Fletcher called The Island Princess, and Marston’s The Malcontent, a revenge comedy. The group had little in common, perhaps, apart from rarity, but each performance was a delight and a revelation. It collected an Olivier award for the outstanding achievement of the year. There was then a ‘Spanish Golden Age Season’ in 2004. This time, Greg Doran established a clearly political focus for all the plays, though none of them actually refers to the Powder Treason, as it was known at the time.

  9. One play in the season even predated the unifying date and event of 1605. Sir Thomas More is a curiosity of theatre history. It seems to have had at least four authors, and one of them Shakespeare. Indeed the scribal hand D is thought to be his, the only surviving instance of a Shakespeare manuscript. (The hand resembles what we know from other signed documents like the famous will, and the spelling of some words, scilens for ‘silence’ or deule for ‘devil’, are peculiar to Shakespeare texts derived from holographs.) The play opens in Robert Delamere’s vigorous production with a young woman being dragged across the stage and then an insurrection. Thomas More (Nigel Cooke) steps forward to quell the riot and immediately imposes his presence on the world of the play. The speech with which he does so, and most of the surrounding scene, are Shakespeare’s major contribution to the play, and it is his linguistic authority that speaks as much as the character.

  10. The reason for the riot is highly topical: immigrants are taking jobs away from true-born Englishmen. Michelle Butterly’s lively Doll eggs the men on, and joins in the fun herself. So More first works on the people’s pity (and Shakespeare seems here to be quoting from More’s own Utopia, according to the Revels editor) before appealing to their need for order:
    Imagine that you see the wretched strangers.
    Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage
    Plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation…
    If disorder prevails, then other ruffians ‘Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes / Would feed on one another’ (II.iii.80-92). It is a remarkable scene.

  11. Nigel Cooke retained the authority he established here for the rest of the play, even when he was brought down and had to mount the scaffold: ‘Well, let’s ascend, a God’s name/ In troth, methinks your stair is somewhat weak:/ I prithee, honest friend, lend me thy hand/ To help me up’. The RSC production allowed us to interpret the play as a subtle piece of Catholic hagiography. This would be consonant with the career of Anthony Munday, the principal author, and with the double-speak forced on Catholic dissidents at a time of strong anti-Catholic feeling. It also renews speculation about Shakespeare’s own Catholic sympathies. Indeed, the play is clearly a challenge to royal authority, even though Henry VIII and the ‘articles’ to which More would not agree are kept out of the picture. The RSC programme notes argued that the play’s image of More is based on a resilient popular tradition in which he is seen as ‘the champion of the city’s mercantile and working class, not the nobility’. The play thus celebrates the ‘merry madcap More’ of folk tradition. And it is true that ‘in most of its dramatised anecdotes More turns the tables against complacent authority’. The censor, Tilney, obviously had reason not to permit the staging, and even the later revision, perhaps what Shakespeare worked on, seems not to have placated the Master of the Revels. The play remained in manuscript, and was not performed till 1964. Thankfully it has now been staged again, and in a strong, clear production for which the company deserves great credit.

  12. Another of the Swan Gunpowder plays, Ben Jonson’s Sejanus, was actually published in 1605, though written earlier. Jonson clearly uses the Roman world as a vehicle to write about his own. Some lines in the play aroused suspicion: Jonson was summoned to appear before the Privy Council and accused by the Earl of Northampton of ‘popery and treason’. Jonson was indeed a Catholic at this time (till 1610), and was twice imprisoned for his satire (in 1597 for The Isles of Dogs, and again in 1605 for being rude to Scotsmen in Eastward Ho!). He was even friends with three of the Powder conspirators, with whom he dined in October 1605. But he seems to have had no involvement in the plot and helped the authorities find some of the men they wanted to interview. And he was also a trusted court servant, writing the words of the Christmas masques for some twenty years.

  13. Exactly what displeased the Privy Council about Sejanus is uncertain, but the play is explicitly about power and its ability to go to your head. Macchiavelli’s Il Principe was in circulation already (though not printed in English till 1640), but the main source for the play is Tacitus. His story of the rise and fall of Tiberius’ favourite has obvious parallels with the court politics of Elizabeth and James, whether the trial and execution of Essex in 1601 following his attempted rebellion, or the treason trial of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603, the year in which Sejanus was first performed. Tiberius’ court is utterly corrupt, and the few good people within it, who look back with longing to a recent Republican past, are spied upon, crushed and put to death. As Martin Butler, the academic adviser for the play, put it in the programme, Sejanus stages an acute polarization between virtue and politics.

  14. Many of us may have found the play turgid in the reading, but on stage, severely cut and revamped by the RSC, it was a big and welcome surprise. The ups and downs of the power struggle and the ruthlessness of the main actors were made grippingly clear; you wanted to leap on stage and tell the good Germanicus about the plot against him, of which his wife may even be a part. But by the time you watched the eloquent Sabinus, a noble old patrician, speak his mind freely in the belief that he was alone, you were prepared to enjoy the black comedy of those two hidden spies under the stage in the sad recognition that nothing could save him now. By this time you had also had to endure the onstage burning of the historian Cordus’ life’s work, which might or might not have made you think of Raleigh’s ongoing History of the World. None of this will have prepared you for the terrifying invocation of and sacrifice to the Goddess Fortune in the final Act, but you will have derived a perhaps rueful pleasure from watching the high ironic drama of Sejanus’s downfall at the end. In a last brilliant staging device, the Emperor read out his final edict from the upper stage, as if from Capri, and wearing a holiday hat. He had finally become the corrupt old debauchee we know from Suetonius’ unforgettable tabloid-style history. Even the discordant music of this production, to say nothing of the grandly Roman set and costumes, contributed to the effect.

  15. Another of the Swan plays besides Thomas More was censored, at least in an earlier version. That earlier play, by Philip Massinger, was about Sebastian, King of Portugal, who had been overwhelmingly defeated by the Moors at Alcazar in 1578, whereupon Philip II of Spain annexed Portugal. Sebastian had apparently been killed in battle, but various pretenders to the throne came forward over the next twenty-five years, the last of whom, Marco Tullio, was executed in 1605. The play was censored ‘because it did contain dangerous matter…, there being a peace sworn between the kings of England and Spain’. Massinger then rewrote his original play as Believe As You List, setting it in ancient Rome, and it was licensed in 1631. It is, it turns out, an emotionally gripping play about a king of the province of lower Asia in the second century BC while Rome was establishing its hegemony. King Antiochus (previously Sebastian), who has apparently been killed in battle, reemerges and reasserts his claim to the throne. The power struggle at the centre of the play pits the returning king, whom most people believe to be genuine (all the audience does, so far as I could see, and the signs of his identity eventually become overwhelming), against the Roman general in charge of pacification, Titus Flaminius. He is cruel and entirely Machiavellian in his methods, holding the king in prison with torture and trying to get him to recant in order to avoid the rumblings of discontent with the Romans that Antiochus’s nobility and stature provoke. The play works well at the level of the political struggle, but also as a personal tussle between the protagonists.

  16. In the RSC production the title has been updated to Believe What You Will.  Since the play was never printed and the manuscript is damaged at an important moment early in the play, a contemporary writer, Ian McHugh, has written some 90 extra lines for it. This is very much in the spirit of collaboration that reigned in Shakespeare’s company, for Philip Massinger was in 1630 the resident playwright of the King’s Men. The newly written scene dramatizes the death of the hero’s companion, called simply ‘the Stoic’, and thus makes sense of his disappearance from the remaining text; Antiochus has also been robbed by his servants when the ms resumes. The chance to write a late Renaissance play, or even a small part of one, must have been challenging for McHugh, and he has accomplished the task exceptionally well. The production, meanwhile, was worthy of his and Massinger’s rewriting: it was a huge success, and deserved a crowded theatre, not the rather sparse matinee audience I shared it with.

  17. Massinger’s original play (we do not know the title) was censored because of its implied criticism of a treaty that had just been signed between England and Spain. This Treaty of Madrid, 1630, was regarded by many radical Protestants as a betrayal, and it was to be denounced in 1641 by John Pym in the Grand Remonstrance of the Parliamentarians against Charles’ various sins. The issue was thus highly sensitive, and Massinger’s rewriting of it largely involved shifting the action back to classical times, as he had done in The Roman Actor of 1626. The tyrannical power of the Roman Empire in its treatment of the defeated Antiochus (and Hannibal) in Believe as You List thus becomes a cover for criticism of Charles and his advisers. The point is made in a charmingly disingenuous way in the new Prologue, which ‘craves pardon…if you find our Roman Empire here,/ Or hapless Asian continent, draw too near/ A late and sad example’. The new version nevertheless passed the censor, though only on condition ‘the reformations be most strictly observed’.

  18. The Swan production worked in tandem with the Sejanus, so that at the heart of each play the power struggle was played out by the same pair of actors. Sitting close to them, as one does in the intimacy of the Swan, one felt their intensity and their pleasure in aggression. Yet the two struggles turned out very differently, in spite of the many parallels. After a first-rate performance as the Marlovian over-reacher Sejanus, William Houston reappeared as the unscrupulous Roman ambassador and priest, Titus Flaminius, in the Massinger play. Opposite him we could enjoy the excellent Peter de Jersey as both the scheming Macro, Sejanus’ second-in-command who betrays and succeeds him at the end, and then as the strong, even admirable, but ultimately defeated Antiochus. Both plays also featured fine performances from Barry Stanton, as a rival priest in the Massinger play and an unpleasantly decadent and utterly credible Tiberius in Sejanus.

  19. In 1603, Sejanus was perhaps played by Richard Burbage, the company’s main actor, and Tiberius by Shakespeare. Whatever they did, it apparently did not work and Jonson’s play was not a success. In the Swan it was a theatrical triumph, full of uncomfortable but gripping moments. The outbreak of vindictive hysteria at Sejanus’ fall, for example, was unpleasantly familiar. Brilliant theatre these plays may be in their modern form, but as to their impact on contemporary politics one is less sure. ‘May my story’, Antiochus says at the end, ‘teach potentates humility, and instruct/ Proud monarchs, though they govern human things,/ A greater power does raise, or pull down, kings.’ With an ending like that, it is clear why the play risked censorship; but one can have little hope that the words would mean much now even if heard at court, or indeed in the White House or Downing Street.

  20. Not to be outdone, but with its own quite different approach to the tourists and schoolchildren it feeds on, Shakespeare's Globe is staging an exhibition explicitly entitled “Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot” from April 2005 to March 2006. It invites the general public to investigate the plot, to look again at the Crown Prosecution's version of events and decide whether they believe the traditional view. Was this really, as the blurb puts it, a well-oiled Jesuit conspiracy to destroy Protestant England along with its King and aristocracy? Or was it simply that a gaggle of disenfranchised and poorly-advised young men were allowed to ferment a plot by those who sought to use their actions to subjugate the wider Catholic community? Did the government conceal its intelligence until the last minute? Was Shakespeare's London justifiably paranoid about invasion from the European Catholic superpowers? What are the facts behind the fireworks? Neither the Globe nor the Swan has staged Macbeth, the one Shakespeare play that responds directly to the Gunpowder plot. Both have been profiting from the seasonal anniversary in their different ways. Neither can have anticipated how relevant the issue of religious terrorism was going to be in contemporary London.


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© 2006-,Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).