October 11, 2018

in Plays

Play (2009)
by Bill Cain

Directed by Christopher V. Edwards

Actors’ Shakespeare Project
The Sanctuary at The United Parish in Brookline
210 Harvard Street
Brookline, MA
October 11 – November 10, 2018

With Steven Barkhimer (Shag), Kimberly Gaughan (Judith), Ed Hoopman (Sharpe, Thomas Wintour, King James), Nael Nacer (Richard Burbage, Henry Garnet), Maurice Parent (Nate, Robert Cecil), Kai Tshikosi (Armin, Sir Edward Coke, Robert Catesby)

Maurice Parent, Nael Nacer, Kai Tshikosi, Kimberly Gaughan, Ed Hoopman, Steven Barkhimer in 'Equivocation'

Maurice Parent, Nael Nacer, Kai Tshikosi
Kimberly Gaughan, Ed Hoopman, Steven Barkhimer
in “Equivocation”
Photo: Nile Scott Shots
Courtesy of Actors’ Shakespeare Project

A dramatically detailed speculation on the genesis of the writing of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, playing in repertory with the Scottish tragedy itself, making use of much of the same masterful cast.

The presumption of this quite involved literary-political invention is that the stand-in for William Shakespeare, here called Shagspeare or just Shag, be thought of as a target for the government officials who want to put his talent to their services. By compromising his own best interests, Shag goes to work trying to create the object of their desires, a drama based on the Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament and the king of the time, James I, with it. Trying to come to terms with the becoming a literary go-fer of the prevailing monarch, Shag eventually sees his own equivocation for what it is and decides to replace his effort with a more difficult plot he’s been brewing, a dark tale about a dastardly usurper that will turn into Macbeth.

At a time when one might well call into question the intentions of a leader who not only usurps the trust of a country but seems intent to wrestle some of its communicative media to his own self-serving purposes, this pair of plays seems more than relevant. Not only do we have Macbeth, the well-known tale of the dastardly and murderous usurper, but, as an adjunct, we have this fantasy about how easily that depiction might have been derailed by the powers that be.

There’s a lot going on in this quite long and involved set of musings about a play concerning the so-called Gunpowder Plot that Shakespeare might have been commissioned to write, but didn’t. Much of it is drawn from the history of the time, though the presumption of Shakespeare’s involvement is fictional.

It is 1606 and Robert Cecil, the high government agent, works on Shag to do his bidding and write a play about the oddly ironic and bizarrely internecine attempt by a group of English Catholic conspirators to assassinate King James I, newly crowned the King of England in 1603. Their gripe: issues with how James is legislating religious freedom for Catholics. Strangely, James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, has been raised a Protestant and has some not very nice things to say about Catholics. As James’ exponent, Cecil, quite virulently anti-Catholic, manages to alienate enough influential Catholics to bring about the famed planning of the setting of explosives in the basement of Parliament to blow it and James away in one fell swoop.

Given the not unreasonable hypothesis that Shakespeare was in fact Catholic – scholar Stephen Greenblatt in his popular Will In The World (2004) supports this thesis – playwright Bill Cain, himself a Jesuit, finds here plenty of material to whet his authorial appetite. What ensues is an elaborate and complex drama about Cecil’s machinations to get Shag to write about the Gunpowder Plot, Shag’s eventual rejection of the idea and resignation from the commission, instead to mount a moodily complex tragedy about an errant king. Macbeth by William Shakespeare, in fact, would appear in 1606 instead of any presumed fiction about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder plotters.

Cain’s play is long and involved and, though historically interesting and replete with memorable lines (e.g. Shag: It’s amazing how little actors know about theater!), tends at intervals towards the preachy. The play might well have benefited from some verbal cost-cutting. Nonetheless, it’s based on an inventive speculation and is certainly well-positioned and relevant in the current scheme of things – framing the coordinated production of Macbeth as a product of an era in which rulership was not only controversial but well might have sought assistance by producing its own ancestral form of fake news.

Playwright Tom Stoppard’s masterful script for the film Shakespeare in Love (1998) tries something analogous by creating a fictional history surrounding the Shakespeare’s early authorship of Romeo and Juliet (1597), but, though delightful, that script is based entirely in Stoppard’s imagination.

Cain’s enterprise here, though also a fictional presumption, is based on the actual history of the Gunpowder Plot and tries to extend from that history a sense of what prevailing government forces might have imposed on the ever more popular Bard. (The Chamberlain’s Men, the company for which Shakespeare wrote most of his plays, had just attained royal patronage in 1603.)

Despite the length and the intricacy of the plot, the acting here is so good that none of that matters. This production, along with Macbeth, with which it is running in repertory, has a dense-pack of amazing actors.

The ever-surprising and wonderfully versatile Nael Nacer, who plays Macbeth in the coordinated production, here appears as Richard Burbage, the ever-demanding producer, and as Henry Garnet, the Jesuit priest executed in connection with the Gunpowder Plot.

The engaging and seductive Maurice Parent appears as Robert Cecil, the government minister who works his industrious magic with Shag, played with gusto and verve by the comic but intense Steven Barkhimer, to try to write the dastardly plot onto the stage. The evocative and expressive Ed Hoopman brings to life King James as well as Thomas Wintour, another Gunpowder conspirator.

This quatrain of masterful actors is supported ably and effectively by Kimberly Gaughan as Shag’s beset daughter Judith, always having to play catch-up with the memory of her dead twin brother Hamnet, and by Kai Tshikosi who brings to life an array of characters including another central conspirator Robert Catesby.

There is a lot to learn about and to enjoy here. Given the wealth of talent in the cast there are endless moments of performance to enjoy, and the play, though a bit long-winded, is full of historical interest.

– BADMan

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