Acorn Studio, Hackney Empire, London E8
Opened 2 February, 2006

Virtually nothing is certain about this play. Not its performance history: although written in 1611, its first recorded production was by this company, Blue Eyes, in 2004. Not its title, which comes from an annotation made by the Jacobean censor to the only surviving copy of the script. Not even its authorship: it has been variously ascribed to Webster, Goffe or Chapman. It has even been claimed that this is in fact Shakespeareís lost play Cardenio, although if this is Shakespeare, I am Edith Evans. Its twin-strand lust-driven plots, the fact that each pair of lovers falls to nervous squabbling when under pressure, and its almost comically corpse-strewn climax, with characters falling like bloody dominoes, all suggest to me Thomas Middleton, to whose pen it is most frequently attributed.

In strand one, the (unnamed) Tyrant (of an unnamed kingdom) has the hots for the (unnamed) Lady, who spurns him to remain faithful to her deposed husband Govianus. Strife and death naturally ensue but, this being Jacobean drama, the Ladyís demise does nothing to cool the Tyrantís ardour: the final scene of this production involves some truly unsettling necrophilia. Meanwhile, Govianusí brother, insecure and jealous, asks his friend Votarius to test his wifeís fidelity, and inevitably the mock-suitor and the wife fall for each other and embark on a clandestine affair, further complicated by a duplicitous waiting-woman and her homicidal lover.

Amanda Cooper directs with vitality and clarity (and on the few occasions when she doesnít get the meaning of a phrase, she confidently fakes it). Iím not sure about the mordantly sarcastic soundtrack of jazz-age show tunes, as the more or less modern costuming really isnít specific enough to sustain such a sense of period. Cooper also gets her cast to gesture rather too constantly, at times illustrating every other word with a movement or an indication of some bodily part or other. Jonathan Clarkson has a nice line in chilling dispassion as the Tyrant, except of course when heís being chillingly passionate. James Durrant is a spectacularly oleaginous courtier, and Trudi Jackson almost a cartoon of mimsy femininity as the adulterous Wife. The play, too, benefits from having a few centuries of cobwebs blown off it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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