by John Ford
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Monday 13th April 2015 19.30
Andy Apollo (Ferentes)
Sheila Atim (Julia)
Guy Burgess (Nibrassa)
Beth Cordingly (Fiormonda)
Geoffrey Freshwater (Abbot)
Marcus Griffiths (Roseilli)
Rhiannon Handy (Colona)
Simon Hedger (Guard)
Julian Hoult (Attendant)
Matthew Kelly (Mauruccio)
Jamie Thomas King (Fernando)
Jonathan McGuinness (D’Avalos)
Annette McLaughlin (Morona)
Matthew Needham (Duke of Pavy)
Richard Rees (Petruchio)
Colin Ryan (Giacapo)
Nav Sidhu (Attendant)
Catrin Stewart (Bianca)
Gabby Wong (Attendant).
John Ford’s popularity is at its height, with The Broken Heart still running at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as Love’s Sacrifice begins its run at the RSC, and with recent major productions of ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore at the Wanamaker and the same play touring with Cheek By Jowl. His collaborative The Witch of Edmonton is very recent RSC production too. Four different plays in a year, then. This one has not been performed in nearly 400 years and the intrinsic text has previously had some critical disdain directed at it. As the programme notes point out, plays can only truly live in production. This one has no production history, so we’re starting out on it. The RSC were getting criticized for choosing the well-known Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline plays from the 600 odd extant ones. So they ran a competition, a playwright’s X Factor, where academics nominated overlooked plays. A short list was argued over and tested with directors and actors, then voted on. Love’s Sacrifice won the contest. And here it is. The most unfairly ignored work of its time? Apparently …
Love’s Sacrifice is also part of a twinned reflection / interaction between the Swan Theatre productions and Royal Shakespeare Theatre productions next door. The Jew of Malta predates The Merchant of Venice, coming in the RST. Love’s Sacrifice postdates Othello, coming in the RST, and is obviously heavily influenced by the Shakespeare play.
This was a preview performance, and we normally avoid them as it’s considered unfair to review them, but we were seeing Paul Simon in Birmingham the night before, and geographical proximity indicated that Monday was a good day for us, on the way home. I’ve seen other reviews of previews, and the first thing is not to criticize pace, smoothness or dropped lines. BUT as there wasn’t a sign anywhere of problems in any of these areas, I’ll carry on. I wondered whether to hold this back, but as it’s entirely positive, it might as well go up now.
The performances, direction, set design, costume design and highly innovative lighting plot were all of the highest RSC quality. They pulled no punches in giving the play all the facilities, human, musical and technical at their disposal to give it every chance to compare to those better-known early 17th century plays.
The set was a series of thin metal arches, all of which could be lit internally in white or red, as if through rusting holes and lit from the base upward too. Banks of yellow spots could be utilised at the rear of the set pointing out. A metal platform went right across the set, about 12 feet up and was used extensively. The thrust stage, diagonal entrances, platform and stairs were scenes of constant relevant movement as people strode swiftly across the platform, or busily descended stairs.
Projection was used at the back of the set, and on three arched windows high above which concealed the hugely effective and dramatic string section. It was varied constantly. At the start a long 3D cathedral effect was stunning.
The actors are the repertory company doing The Jew of Malta and later in the season, Volpone. Matthew Needham is in the leading (Othello parallel) role as the Duke of Pavy, and in a matter of months we have seen him as the comic lead, Rafe, in Knight of The Burning Pestle at the Wanamaker Playhouse, and Pilla-Borza (the pimp) in the Jew of Malta here. This was a towering central performance, ending in him dying just two or three feet from our seats. He did the hyperactive cheerful to schlerotic Duke like a 16th Century Richard Branson, before dissolving into quivering jealousy. Catrin Stewart was Abigail in The Jew of Malta. Here, as Bianca (the Desdemona parallel) not only looked perfect, she gave us a feisty, powerful modern victim, fighting to the end. Beth Cordingly is the Duke’s sister, Fiormeda, (the Iago parallel) a contrast to her Bellamira the Courtesan in Jew of Malta.
Fernando (left) and the Duke (right)
The play is much more Eastenders sexually-explicit in its language than plays a couple of decades earlier, and the production brought this out. There was extensive use of mime, and masque, and slow stately dance movements all illustrating the story. The platform walkway was used for whole cast overhearing and watching at times. So five star performance and production. Exceptional direction too.
What of the play itself? The central story is strong with a clear linear development. The issue is the subplot levels, which are not that strongly integrated with the main plot. As its unlikely that many know the story, I’ll summarise.
At the start, Roseilli, a handsome nobleman, is banished by the Duke because he had made romantic advances to the duke’s widowed sister, Fiormeda. The scene shows the duke acting on a sudden angry whim, which he later regrets. This is the first sub plot. What do you do if you’re banished in any 16th /17th century drama? That’s right. You return in disguise to observe the play and those who banished you. Roseilli returns disguised as a Fool, in green jester costume. I’m glad I read this in the synopsis before the play, because while it’s the same actor (Marcus Griffiths) there’s so much doubling up in plays of the era, that you might not have realized. The Fool is taken on by Mauruccio (Matthew Kelly). Mauruccio is the central comic character, a hilarious fop.
The main story is the eternal triangle. The Duke has newly married Bianca (Catrin Stewart), raising her in status because of her great beauty. His best pal, Fernando (Jamie Thomas King) has returned after two years away and is greeted effusively. The widowed sister Fiormeda fancies Fernando, but he rejects her because his eyes are on Bianca. Fiormeda, dressed all in black to befit both her widow status and her evil intentions, works with the Duke’s secretary, D’Avolos. These two are the baddies, with a grudge against Fernando, and they plot to turn the Duke against him.
D’Avolos (Jonathan McGuiness)
Then another sub-plot comes in. Ferentes is a courtier and a seducer of astonishing aptitude, and we see him with three women, Julia, Colona and Morona. He has managed to get all three pregnant, and rejects them all. Morona is too old, Colona was too easy, he doesn’t like Julia’s face. While this story has nothing to do with the central triangle, it does reflect on seducers and adulterers without conscience. The importance of this is that Fernando, later to be accused of just this, is not a seducer, nor without conscience. So Ferentes in action is what the Duke imagines wrongly Fernando to be. This subplot is strong. The three wronged women get the standard rejection from their fathers (Whores!), and combine as a sisterhood to seek revenge. The women had been naive and sinned against, and deceived by false oaths, but have been blamed.
The first part ends with news that they’re preparing a pageant for the arrival of the Duke’s uncle, the Abbot, who is shortly to be made a cardinal. The pageant opens part two, with the court assembled on the walkway to watch. The masked pageant is a marvellous set piece. The three men (Ferentes, Mauruccio, the Fool aka Roseilli) are dressed in white. The three wronged women are dressed entirely in red with short skirts. Mauruccio is trying to take part in the stately dance while frantically trying to direct the others at the same time. The entertainment turns vicious as Ferentes, in a metal mask, is chained to pillars, then stabbed by the women in full view of the court.
All through, Fernando is increasingly drawn to Bianca, and Fiormonda and D’Avolos are more and more bent on wreaking revenge and destruction. The mercurial Duke is displaying his sudden irrational temper and is an easy fish to catch. Bianca is falling for Fernando, even meeting him in her nightie (well, 17th century nightie) but though they kiss, they go no further.
From there on in we’re in standard revenge tragedy mode. In a real Othello-Desdemona scene the jealous duke murders Bianca, though she fights to the end, telling him he’s “not the man” Fernando is. The implication is clear to the Duke, who no doubt takes it as a reflection on his potency, rather than on his character.
The funeral: Duke of Pavy centre
At her funeral, the coffin is opened for a last farewell, and Fernando, lurking in there for a last embrace, leaps out. The Duke is assured that Bianca was chaste. Five minutes later both Fernando and the Duke have topped themselves.
Fiormeda is now the ruler and immediately marries Roseilli. The Cardinal intervenes, having spotted a plotter, and she’s sent off to pray for forgiveness for life, Roseili is the new ruler.
Mauruccio has been imprisoned for his part in the pageant and is brought on, and in a classic pantomime finish, is sent off to marry Morona (aged “six and forty” from memory as well as pregnant). He’s delighted with the news, and takes his loyal manservant, Giacopo, along with him. Matthew Kelly brings out the full comic potential of the character throughout.
Is Love’s Sacrifice a lost masterpiece? I can’t see that it’s much lesser than ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore or The Broken Heart, though there might be less integration in the subplots. Its comparative rating is boosted by such an elaborate and brilliant production of course. It hits the themes of chastity, lust, honour, legitimacy, adultery head on, and for a welcome change the women are not wilting pawns to the men (there is a chess game in the play!) A play with five strong female roles is unusual in the era, and that may lead to more productions. Notes online say that actors were drawn to the play by the roles.
Certainly, this RSC production brings out its virtues, though I suspect the director and producer and designers deserve a considerable share of the credit for bringing the play so vigorously to life.
JOHN FORD on this blog:
The Broken Heart, Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore – Cheek by Jowl , Nuffield, by John Ford
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore – Wanamaker Playhouse, by John Ford
The Witch of Edmonton by Rowley, Dekker & Ford, RSC