(Read in honest trailer voice) An attempt on the king’s life has been made, a plot is unveiled, the traitors are captured and the kingdom must be calmed. The hopes of all England ride one one man, a man who can sway the public and restore order.
Vancouver, BC’s Bard on the Beach sole non-Shakespeare written play for 2014 is Bill Cain‘s Equivocation, a perfect fit to the season even if the play is not a curtain-t0-curtain masterpiece. Director Michael Shamata puts on a thoroughly enjoyable and energetic piece on the Bard on the Beach studio stage.
Rather than the author of the play, William Shakespeare or Shagspeare (Bob Frazer) is the central character struggling late in his career to, well, write a play.
Think Shakespeare in Love, Jacobean Style.
In Cain’s play, we have the dark and serious playwright reflecting on a career built on piling up bodies on stage, rewriting courtly love, changing the nature of the theatre forever, and altering history with a hump here and there. He is under pressure to equivocate from political pressures in King James I’s court that want him doing more of what they want. They get it. The play is the thing. It can change things.
The machiavell of the the play is Sir Robert Cecil (Anousha Alamian) who would like Shagspeare and his players to write the very current history of the gun powder plot of December 1605 in which a group of Catholics most notably Guy Fawkes (yes, the guy from V for Vendetta) sought to destroy parliament complete with the intolerant Scottish king in it. Can the greatest playwright in all of English history pull the play out, or is his quest for the capital ‘T’ truth to much of a barrier?
Who’s telling who lies? Who is really behind the plot? What are the characters’ motivations, and why are they motivated to act them out?
Consider the question central in the play:
The Spanish army invades England and a soldier is at your door asking if the king is hiding within. He is. Do you remain loyal to the crown and lie to save the king or do you tell the truth and betray he you swore to protect?
You may want to use the subtle art of equivocation.
Cain, a Jesuit himself, is incredibly clever for the most part, weaving Shagspear’s crew of actors, King James’ politicians, clerics, and the playwright himself together to tell the incredibly complicated, but thoroughly enjoyable plot.
*Spoiler alert: he writes Macbeth.
Actors, like in Bard on the Beach’s Cymbeline, play multiple roles sometimes swapping costumes onstage. On the whole the players pull off the swaps with accuracy and style, and rarely do the roles blend into each other.
A chink that stood out in the armour of Cain’s play is the side plot involving Shagspeare’s daughter Judith (Rachel Cairns), whose scenes lack the energy and pop of the rest of the play. Cairns is a fine actress and it’s unclear whether the 21st century sarcasm her character broods the stage with is the fault of the script or the performance. I want to say it’s the former. The “I hate soliloquies” lines are a little weird as they’re typically uttered while she delivers her various soliloquies. There’s also an odd line near the end where she says that after “the Scottish Play” (ha, ha. Theatre people are superstitious about saying ‘Macbeth), her father only wrote six more plays. Six more? Those plays were Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale and the Tempest (maybe Pericles). King Lear’s also around that time. Just those six? I can think of a playwright or two that wouldn’t mind if that list was their complete canon. She is meant to be the Debby Downer to the Bard, and winds up being the same for the audience.
The Judith scenes might have been a bit more forgivable if the rest of the play wasn’t so intriguing, full of fine pace, and entertaining. The scenes between Shagspeare and Cecil are very strong and bursting with wit, as is the theological back and forth between Shagspeare and Father Henry Garnet (Gerry Mackay). Mackay pulls double duty as Shagspeare’s forever partner and friend Richard Burbage, and is great in both roles.
Oh and there’s a few heads that get cut off on stage. Always dramatic.
Bard on the Beach was wise to chose Cain’s play for 2014. Having one play that addresses the man rather than the work is always a treat. Those in Vancouver who sit in the ‘I don’t really get Shakespeare’ lawn chair would do well to check this one out, as well as those who sit on the ‘what was it really like in Shakespeare’s time’ hardback chairs.
It gives a great glimpse into a vision of what the time may have been like, and the struggles of an author to produce work that is both true, poetic and will have lasting appeal.
You know, unlike a few parts of the Henry VI trilogy.