Our first workshop with The Dolphin’s Back took place yesterday (22 January 2017), exploring the earliest surviving play from English commercial theatre on the site of the earliest purpose-built commercial playhouse.
Exactly 450 years after John Brayne sought to “frame, make, or build and set up . . . within the court or yard lying on the south side of the garden belonging to the messuage or farm house known by the name of the sign of the Red Lion . . . situated, and being at Mile End,” we returned to the very same piece of land (at the Urban Bar, next to the London Hospital) to think about Brayne’s endeavour and, chiefly, explore Robert Wilson’s play.
Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London is the earliest surviving play from the commercial theatre, dated roughly to around 1580/1 and printed in 1584–the first year in which plays from the commercial theatre appear in printhouses. The Three Ladies is a moral and economic critique of contemporary London, in which Lady Love and Lady Conscience are spurned in favour of Lady Lucre, whom they ultimately end up serving. Wilson presents a range of abstract characters, including the vices Usury, Dissimulation, Fraud, and Simony, as well as the clownish Simplicity. The play has received welcome attention in recent years, and a conference at McMaster University, Canada, in 2015 has a brilliant website hosting essays on the work, including Andy Kesson’s discussion of The Three Ladies and Performance as Research.
The actors worked, extraordinarily, in a very short space of time to run through the scenes, get familiarised with the (now) archaic metre, and block the performance. Wilson’s Prologue addresses the audience with a fitting remark: “You marvel then what stuff we have to furnish out our show” (l.14). The same applied here, though the spare props and the placemarker (“London: 1 Mile” –> “London” –> “donE!”) proved effective and entertaining furnishings in a lively, amusing workshop on the play.
James Wallace compered the event and filled in the plot of excised scenes, and amidst the performance there was time for discussion of the context of the play and Robert Wilson (including the Leicester’s Men) from Lucy Munro, while Andy talked about the play’s reception and responses to The Three Ladies (see, for instance, the sadly lost London Against the Three Ladies), and Callan introduced the area and the building of the Red Lion. (For materials related to these discussions, see the handout, below).
There was time, in these moments and at the end, for discussion of the play and the performance. A number of audience members talked of how easy the play felt to follow, in both narrative and verse, though others acknowledged that parts of it still felt somewhat distant. Nonetheless, several of the actors, talking to the room at the end of the event, felt the verse was no hinderance, and certainly from a spectator’s/auditor’s point of view/hearing, the performance was pacy and often conversational, occasionally rising to emphasis on a heavily rhymed or triumphant line. Lines that can read on the page (or screen) as clunky or conspicuously wracked by the verse structure, felt (to me at least) sprightly and effective on stage:
JUDGE NEMO. For covetousness is the cause of wresting man’s conscience;
Therefore restrain thy lust, and thou shalt shun the offence.
(17.104-5 [last lines of the play])
— Kim Gilchrist (@KimGilchrist) January 22, 2017
— Adam B (@adambcqx) January 22, 2017
— Jackie Watson (@jackiewatson05) January 22, 2017
My pre-Shakespeare experience today with Three Ladies of London https://t.co/xO4fP27L76
— Shakespeare’s London (@ShakespearesLon) January 22, 2017
James also noted wryly how contemporary some of the issues of the play felt–particularly so, in light of recent political preoccupations. One thing that arose from the workshop was Wilson’s interest in, among other matters, criminal activity, immigration, and housing problems–contentious issues that we share with the Elizabethans. While the play uses abstractions as its main characters, those characters are also shaded with practical concerns and precise activities that show them to be rooted in the economic and social realities of the period:
LADY LUCRE. Why, Signiore Mercadore, think you not that I
Have infinite numbers in London that my want doth supply,
Besides in Bristol, Northampton, Norwich, Westchester, Canterbury [. . .]
That great rents upon little room do bestow?
The Three Ladies also contains a representation of a Jew, Gerontus, far more positively portrayed than in many other Elizabethan and Jacobean stage incarnations. Wilson shows him to be more than reasonable in his moneylending practices (contentious in England as abroad in this time but nonetheless legal, provided that lenders did not charge more than the permitted 10%) and also strikingly compassionate. Opposite the irredeemably vicious Italian merchant, Mercadore (an unreconstructed stereotype of a money-loving trader from a Catholic country), Gerontus is patient and ultimately selfless in cancelling the debt he is owed in order to prevent Mercadore from forsaking his faith.
We will be documenting these workshops going forward in various media, and we will also present the thoughts, reactions, and experiences of actors and audiences. You can also see more media from these events on the Media > Workshops page. Future workshops (more dates to be confirmed shortly) will be available for booking on The Dolphin’s Back website.
Finally, and importantly, a big thank you to the actors who took part: