The Broken Heart
by John Ford
Directed by Caroline Steinbeis
Designed by Max Jones
Choreography by Imogen Knight
Music by Stephen Slater
Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe, London
Sunday 15th March 14.30
Liam Brennan as Crotolon, father of Orgilus and Euphrania
Brian Ferguson as Orgilus, who loves Penthea
Thalissa Teixeira as Euphrania, sister to Orgilus, who loves Prophilus
Amy Morgan as Penthea, wife of Bassanes, who loves Orgilus
Luke Thompson as Ithocles, a successful general, and Penthea’s twin brother
Tom Stuart as Prophilus, friend of Ithocles who loves Euphrania
Owen Teale as Bassanes, older man who Penthea is forced to marry
Sanchia McCormack as Grausis, servant to Bassanes
Patrick Godfrey as Amyclas, King of Sparta
Sarah Macrae as Calantha, Princess, daughter of the king, later Queen of Sparta.
Joe Jameson as Nearchus, Prince of Argos, suitor to Princess Calantha
Peter Hamilton Dyer as Tecnicus, a scholar
Adam Lawrence as Amelus / Phulas, courtier
Phil Whitechurch as Armostes, servant
The Broken Heart is rated with ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore as John Ford’s other great play. It dates from around 1629 (published 1633), so is “Caroline drama,” in the reign of Charles I, rather than “Jacobean drama.”
We looked on Wiki for a synopsis. Incomprehensible. Never mind, we said, the Globe programmes always sum it up in a paragraph or three. Not so this time. The programme synopsis was just as convoluted. Unfamiliar names don’t help. Much of the problem, as I keep saying, are these truncated cast lists. So “Liam Brennan as Crotolon.” This not Hamlet (actually, it’s definitely NOT Hamlet). You can get away with just “Polonius” relying on previous knowledge in Hamlet, but this is (a) John Ford and (b) not his best-known play. A vast majority of theatergoers would say. “So who the f*ck is Crotolon?” Or let’s take Nearchus. There is a character referred to as The Prince of Argos. After we’ve seen him several times, a character calls him Nearchus. So, don’t put “Nearchus” in the programme, put Nearchus, Prince of Argos. Suitor for Calantha. Or just “Prince of Argos.” There, I’ve done it for you. The original programme just has bare names. Then don’t list them alphabetically or chronologically in order of appearance. List them in meaningful groups.
It does not take much effort, as above to expand the names. The play opened with a non-speaking scene, showing Orgilus wooing Penthea, then they are attacked by hooded men, Orgilus is beaten to the ground and Penthea is dragged away to marry the old man, Bassanes. Excellent. It clears up a lot of plot. Identifying with actors you can see is far better than trying to follow names.
So Penthea has to marry Bassanes. This is all the fault of her twin brother, Ithocles. Ithocles is a general in the Spartan army, off at the wars. So Orgilus has a serious grudge against Ithocles, who is a bit of a bastard. Orgilus decides to slope off to Athens for a sulk, becoming a scholar under a master and soothsayer, Tecnicus. But having got himself a scholar’s gown with hood, he nips back to Sparta to watch the goings on in the Bassanes household. Bassanes is an insanely jealous older man, keeping Penthea locked up. This is one major strand. Penthea feels dishonored, whored, strumpeted, raped (she says all four), by her forced marriage. This is the thread that gives a modern connection that could have been explored further than it is. In the end she starves herself to death. The first anorexic in literature?
Bassanes and Penthea
Meanwhile, at the court, we meet the King and his beautiful daughter, the Princess Calantha. Ithocles returns from the war, Spartan shield in hand. Being Spartan, you had the choice of returning carrying your shield with pride. Or on it. i.e. dead. It was good to see Ithocles facing the king in full classical Spartan gear, as the hero. Though I wouldn’t have had him deliver his first lines quietly and back to the audience. So now we have love plot two. And three. Calantha fancies Ithocles. But then, his pal Prophylacticus, or rather Prophilus fancies Euphrania. As chance would have it, Euphrania is Orgilus’s sister. Right three romances. Orgilus is back in disguise watching the proceedings.
Orgilus reveals his identity to Penthea, but she feels too dishonored to have him as “second bed.” End of that romance. Orgilus plots revenge on her brother, Ithocles. Meanwhile all is going well with Euphrania and Prophilus, and Orgilus gives his consent for them to marry.
In the royal household, we have a problem. The Prince of Argos arrives to wed the princess. This is a hilarious performance as he channels Rick Mayall’s Captain Flasheart from Blackadder IV. (Not the first time we’ve seen this role recently for an arriving suitor). This means new lines like “Yum yum!” as he sees Princess Calantha. But Calantha has her heart (the very heart in the play’s title) set on Ithocles, perhaps having a thing for men in uniform.
OK, Jacobean / Caroline drama. That means we’re heading for a messy end. Penthea dies and is wheeled on as a sitting corpse (a swine of a part to do perfectly in full view for several long minutes, but she does). Orgilus gets Ithocles to sit next to her in a trick chair, which traps him. This allows the scholarly Orgilus to stab the heroic and probably stronger soldier to death. There is a dance scene, the best in the play, with Euphrania and Prophilus, and Princess Calantha and the Prince of Argos doing a dance which becomes increasingly fevered as first news of the King’s death is announced, then the death of Calantha’s loved one, Ithocles. Her formal dance becomes a frantic dance in a brilliant piece of choreography. Then we have a scene where Orgilus confesses to the murder and is sentenced to death, by bleeding to death. He does this manacled, holding two spears while blood drains noisily into two copper bowls.
Calantha is crowned queen in a spectacular piece of costume. Winged golden armor is lowered and she is strapped into it for her coronation. Ithocles, in black and silver armour, eyes closed, stands next to her as a ghost. But “Crack! Crack!” she cries and dies of a broken heart. The end.
Princess Calantha is crowned
I hope that was a touch clearer than Wiki.
Costume is half-Spartan. Spartan with Caroline era ruffs and bits. It’s dramatic and unusual. Choreography is the best thing in it … Act 2 opens with all three major female roles doing a kind of automaton dance … fittingly as in this world, the women are acted upon, not precipitators of events.
So to the criticism. Act two went better than Act one. This is very early in the run, and there were some signs of under-rehearsal, we both thought. Virtually the whole of this cast had been in The Changeling (see link) then had the short three week run of Farinelli & The King to get this one rehearsed and ready. You can see a bit of shuffling feet (“dancing about meaninglessly” my companion calls it) which is always a sign of actors not being 100% tight in the roles. There was a scene where we were both sure the king fluffed lines completely and was rescued by improvised lines. That’s what we thought. Maybe it was masterly acting indicating the king was aging and shaky and we were being suspicious and unjust. But that’s not a problem, a couple of days will correct it.
Orgilus is the best part in the play and Brian Ferguson is engaging, funny and very good in it … but. But accent is an issue. We’ve seen Liam Brennan in Twelfth Night and Richard III, as well as The Changeling, and he always does light Scottish. He’s Crotolon. So Orgilus is his son, and also has a Scottish accent, but a lot stronger. OK, we thought early on, the Scots pride themselves on being a Spartan race, so maybe this is all deliberate. Then we meet Orgilus’s sister, Euphrania. She’s black, but productions are colour blind and after all, we never meet the mother. But Euphrania has a straight unmarked English accent, so we’re “accent deaf” in this production. But hang on, accent is an issue. Orgilus needs two accents, because he has to operate in disguise. He demonstrates this in a very funny, well-timed comedy scene, seated among the audience in the pit, where he switches from strong Scottish to affected RP English, and does the switch repeatedly. So it makes sense. Orgilus is Scottish-accented, but pretends to be English accented while in disguise as a scholar. But no! It doesn’t happen. When he arrives and meets Penthea as a disguised scholar, he’s back in Scottish. She doesn’t recognize him until he takes his hood off. Surely he should have done this scene in the English accent until he reveals himself? I’d also add that early on we found his Scottish accent too strong … while Liam Brennan’s Scottish accent was absolutely clear. Was Orgilus saying there’s a “Hill on us?” Or was he saying “hell on Earth?” It was much closer to the former. In fact, as we got used to it, Ferguson’s accent became comprehensible and his performance is really first class. But I’d strongly suggest lightening the accent by 30% … we had seen James McAvoy the day before, who speaks as himself in quite strong Scottish, but can do English or American with perfect ease. I’m not suggesting “no Scottish accent” just “less extreme” which is something most people do naturally when addressing people from outside their accent area. There is something in the air since the referendum though … on TV, I notice both James McAvoy and David Tennant have increased the strength of their Scottish accents recently. An actor should be able to turn accent up or down at will. Actually, why not do English for the main part and switch to Scottish for the scholar? It would be more audience-friendly that way around.
Sarah McCrae as Calantha also trained in Scotland, and had a slight Scottish lilt early on, but not later. Again, decide on the accent control, and then fix the setting to be consistent. Sorry to harp on about it, but I’ve spent years recording people with regional accents, and I am unable to be accent-deaf. I do agree on natural accents for actors, I know stuff from this era works in any accent, but to me I can’t help eliciting relationships between characters of the same accent.
All in all, an excellent production. Choreography and costume were both outstanding. As in the Changeling, the entire cast acquits themselves well. I certainly didn’t fall in love with the play. The female roles are too squashed by Ford, and while forced marriage is a modern issue, you’d want to draw modern parallels. I’d like to see the Cheek By Jowl company have a bash at modernizing, as they did with ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore.
Increasingly I can see why they’re surprised about the complaints caused by hard backless benches, as you do get used to it. It’s easier every time we do it … but we counted four empty seats in the Lower Gallery in Act Two, which means that although seats are both hard to obtain and expensive, some people just can’t make it. Tip: keep walking in the interval. Go up and down the stairs, and walk briskly at the end for at least ten minutes to walk off” the backache, as a chiropractor friend advises.
Great stuff, good director interview, but the first time ever a Globe synopsis didn’t work. Still too convoluted.
I’d add that none of the three look recognizable in the publicity shot on posters and flyers. OK, this photograph would pre-date the production by months.
JOHN FORD on this blog:
Love’s Sacrifice, by John Ford, RSC 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