Before Shakespeare in Performance

“When in Toledo there I studied, It was my chance to write a tragedy – See here my lords – [He shows them a book] Which long forgot, I found this other day. Now would your lordships favour me so much As but to grace me with your acting it – I mean each one of you to play a part – Assure you it will prove most passing strange And wondrous plausible to that assembly.”

                                                                                    Act IV Sc 1, The Spanish Tragedy

In exploring early modern plays through performance it is fruitful to consider their historico-political context and modern-day thematic resonances. Andy Kesson’s second post for this blog presents us with a challenge: ‘[not to] overlook the more challenging creative decisions taken by [Shakespeare’s] contemporaries [who] repeatedly risked imprisonment in order to encourage audiences to think about democracy or free speech or aristocratic abuses.’ Two playwrights immediately spring to mind: Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd. I had encountered them over the years through studying Francis Walsingham, definitions of atheism and the origin of the ‘Hamlet’ narrative/revenge tragedy sub-genre. This post explores my experiences as an actor working recently, in London, on plays by these writers, engaging with their topicality and cultural value. I find in The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine the Great thematic and narrative universality and easy transposition into our modern context.

I jumped at the chance to take part in a production of The Spanish Tragedy in 2013 with well-known theatre company LAZARUS. Artistic Director Ricky Dukes’ approach is deeply invested in textual analysis as support for decision making in performance. I played Horatio,the son of Hieronimo in the full text, which is critical to the revenge plot. In our version, populated by graduate actors, Horatio became Hieronimo’s younger brother instead. We played the Blue Elephant Theatre, Camberwell, for three weeks and generated quite a lot of academic interest, as scholars had then suggested a young Shakespeare had a hand in penning additional scenes for the 1602 edition.

The production showcased everything I held to be true about early modern theatre; centrally, that the themes and social tensions, as well as the motivations of characters, are close to those we recognise today. The concepts underscoring the writing are not alien ideas today at all; in fact, many are strikingly relevant. Political upheaval, constitutional frustration, questions of sovereignty, distrust of government and the murder of important figures by foreign powers are starkly present in modern day Europe. England supported Portugal to spite the Spanish crown and the potential political fallout of disunion couldn’t be a neater allegory for European affairs this year; our wars may be further afield but we are in support of powers around the world in our own interests. Our pending political disunion with Europe, and the potential further devolution and break up of the UK, as well as the power struggles within the political class mirror Spain and Portugal enough to have tangible relativity for an audience. Indeed, the ‘war’ in The Spanish Tragedy, whilst described in bloody detail at the outset by Don Andrea forms a back drop for political machination and espionage within the court.

Hieronimo, as with Hamlet, ponders existence, revenge and questions the influence of the supernatural on the world of mortals; the framing device of Revenge and Don Andrea is a great piece of writing borrowing heavily from the classical world and grants a modern audience direct access to the action in typically Elizabethan fashion, through exposition and metatheatre.

The action in Kyd’s tragedy violently crescendos with a play within a play; metatheatricality is not just the playground of Shakespeare. Our production took some liberties with the text, cutting swathes of subplots, conflating characters and reversing genders, as well as altering the play within a play to a slick choral movement piece. This bold direction served the spirit of the piece very well and required vocal and physical precision and energy. Unlike Hamlet (Kyd is often supposed to have penned an earlier version of the Prince of Denmark), The Spanish Tragedy is full of drive, and Hieronimo’s soliloquies are energetic and direct. Upon discovering the betrayal of his son by his former allies the Knight Marshall is a swift and determined revenger. Our cuts allowed an audience into his psyche more directly, dispensing with extraneous exposition and textual comic relief (arguably a later addition…).

The context of performance has changed; in London, ninety minutes in the evening after work to watch a play is quite the commitment. I posit there is also some stigma in performing lesser-known plays from the past, something Before Shakespeare, for instance, seeks to address. With LAZARUS, we settled on a version of Kyd’s play that served the core narrative of revenge, allowing movement work and onstage rehearsal processes to provide exposition and context for the audience. We further highlighted the influence this play had on the development of revenge tragedy as a genre through Shakespeare to Webster and Middleton by including many papers, scripts and rehearsal room objects within the set itself. A further scenic influence was the idea of celebration—celebrating both the King of Spain’s success in battle and this often-sidelined play—on display through party hats, bunting, streamers and other festive properties adorned the stage. This theatrical playground ultimately dissolved during Hieronimo’s pièce de résistance in act five, as the theatre was literally torn down during the slaughter to reveal my ‘ghost’ hung at the back of the auditorium and a blackened brick wall scrawled bluntly in chalk with the words ‘Vengeance is mine’: displaying the brutal truth behind the facade.

Dissecting (‘unpacking’), rehearsing and performing Kyd’s language was an identical process to working with Shakespeare; classical, tricky references for modern audiences were rife and the five-act structure, combination of verse and prose and the beating heart of iambic pentameter are all there. Yet something about the writing, however, is inherently not Shakespearean. The turn of phrase feels different in the mouth and the pace of conversation is certainly wildly quicker than, for example, in Hamlet. But this is down to the play’s focus. Hieronimo deals swiftly with the issues and complicated psychological gymnastics he’s presented with, promptly formulating then executing his coup. Actor Danny Soloman (our worthy Hieronimo) consequently attacked the play with high, sustained energy, driving through to its bloody conclusion. I recall the director saying Soloman ‘[entered] the building with the key in the ignition, the engine running, already with his foot down, working through the gears throughout the evening.’ All texts from this period require great breath control, textual analysis and clarity. These are all things I strive for in all my work but are ever present in performing Kyd, especially without the respite of intermission for the audience.

I came to work with LAZARUS again on Marlowe’s epic Tamburlaine the Great (parts 1 & 2), as part of the Camden Fringe 2015 at the Tristan Bates Theatre. During the gap between the two productions I had worked extensively on Shakespeare, including several Read Not Dead readings and on other early modern plays with The Dolphin’s Back, namely John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon and Marlowe’s final work The Massacre At Paris.

For Tamburlaine, I reunited with some cast from The Spanish Tragedy and the creative team. Marlowe’s epic came out in the same year as Kyd’s play and the two writers were certainly close, even sharing a room at one point. I played Usumcasane, Tamburlaine’s right hand man. Again we found staggering modern parallels with the socio-political context of 1588 (and indeed 1405, when the historical Tamburlaine, Timur, died). The regions claimed by ISIS in the Middle East and Northern Africa are name checked-again and again throughout Tamburlaine. Famously (albeit allegedly) ‘atheist’, Marlowe’s play seems at odds with this second-hand claim about his beliefs; Tamburlaine recognises the existence of God and the power of Mohammed. He challenges these figures whilst cutting a bloody path across continents, bringing empires to their knees.

The most famous section comes from part 2 when the conqueror burns the Koran and challenges the prophet to show his power:

So, Casane; fling them in the fire.—

         [They burn the books.]

     Now, Mahomet, if thou have any power,

     Come down thyself and work a miracle:

                                                                        Act V Sc 1, 2 Tamburlaine

He persists and is eventually struck down with a mysterious disease but not before repeated challenges:

Why send’st

thou not a furious whirlwind down,

     To blow thy Alcoran up to thy throne[?]

                                                                        Act V Sc 1, 2 Tamburlaine

Our production focussed on this challenge to divinity and the sense of ego that cascades from Tamburlaine’s words, but also modernised and contextualised the setting (not to an ISIS caliphate but to an African warlord, perhaps a Mugabe or Idi Armin). We tried to create a sense of heat and the movement of people across vast landmasses. Marlowe’s text and rhythm supported this reading well: the company orchestrated sweeping movement pieces in place of battle scenes, and the political rhetoric throughout the play reads like military dispatches. I wrote a list of all the different places and peoples mentioned. It was encyclopaedic. The ISIS map covers the same land masses as those in Marlowe’s play, a stirring and frightening reminder of historical relevance; like ISIS, Tamburlaine uses religion and inheritance as an excuse for his actions whilst really perpetuating his cult of personality. He’s a merciless dictator but an attractive, vigorous villain with greater reach and global cultural influence than Richard of Gloucester et al.

Our production required much of the same research and extra-textual analysis as The Spanish Tragedy and at least the same level of depth and forethought as when tackling Shakespeare in order to ‘unpack’ the essential thematic aims. I have There is no simple or single answer to this question and it will vary from company to company and year to year; it may seem, though, paradoxical that Marlowe and Kyd have immediate contemporary relevance but we must bear in mind that although science and technology has advanced us significantly in four centuries, many of the moral, social and political ideas of our modern society stem from the early modern era. These people were no different from us and their relative obscurity is all that alienates us. The value in performance, then, is in finding those commonalities. Although I would argue against essentialism of any single idea within theatre, it is ultimately very useful to reframe these works to suit our current aims. In terms of actors’ research a transposition or modernisation of these texts may provide a ‘way in’ and inform character development; furthermore it is a fundamental truth of theatre, acknowledged in Andy’s first blog post, that box office power is one of the most important considerations in creating commercial work: ‘Those playhouses feel new in their architectural specificity, their sheer number, their investment in the problem of how you make money from a building primarily devoted to performance and how you entertain thousands of people with fictional or semi-fictional stories.’

Of course there is an equally powerful surprise for audiences in the discovery of these old but neglected tales, one must strike a balance between faithful rediscovery and getting new audiences into the theatre in the first place. There is, as Read Not Dead has long shown, a growing hunger for this work within London. Rarely are these plays given a full production. The Shakespeare’s Globe project has presented academic readings from the period since before the New Globe Theatre itself was even constructed. For these plays to really live and breathe, however, I think we must give them time to grow, for actors to move beyond initial clues from the text and into a deeper, more considered company understanding of the work as a whole. In much the same way we cut and contemporise Shakespeare, I think we should adapt and assess his forbears and peers, whilst of course acknowledging those changes and encouraging discussion. LAZARUS traditionally holds Q&A sessions after some performances, and this engagement with an audience in a discursive capacity, beyond the director’s note, is a very useful opportunity to connect with audiences new and old, familiar and unfamiliar.

What I have discovered as an actor through exploring the work of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd in the 1580s is that, far from being prototypes for ‘the Bard’, they are great writers in their own right, writing current affairs pieces of huge political and social import at a time of great European unrest. The sheer scale of Tamburlaine in particular and the political nuance contained in both plays gives a sense of the ideas being discussed in London taverns, the stories both true and exaggerated brought from far away lands by sailors and explorers and, ultimately, the potentially seditious sentiments that got Marlowe and Kyd arrested in 1593.

Shakespeare is of the establishment, more so today than 400 years ago. The writers that preceded him and rubbed shoulders with him are in no way lessened by his enduring popularity but need a bit more research. Shakespeare has the monopoly but certainly not the only stake in terms of relevance and access to our cultural history. I found that in approaching these sorts of texts my methodology was identical to working with Shakespeare, informed by textual analysis, overarching themes and character motivation, research into allegory and obscure references and my character’s relationships with others. The only difference is inherited familiarity.

Adam Cunis

One thought on “Before Shakespeare in Performance

  1. Pingback: Birthday Post: A Year of Before Shakespeare | Before Shakespeare

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