RICH, POTENT AND REWARDING
Written by: Bill Cain
Directed by: Peter Hambleton
at Circa One, Wellington
From 24 May 2014 to 21 Jun 2014
Reviewed by John Smythe, 25 May 2014
In a way any good story equivocates. It can be described by setting, characters and central events, but then we should be able to ask: what it is really about; what resonates from this particular scenario; what is it a metaphor for?
On the surface, Equivocation, by American playwright Bill Cain, is about how ‘Shag' (William Shagspeare: Cain's preferred spelling of Shakespeare) and The King's Men at the Globe Theatre, respond to being commissioned to adapt and perform the official story of the Gunpowder Plot: the alleged Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King James I of England and IV of Scotland by blowing up The House of Lords during the state opening of England's parliament on 5 November 1605.
When interviewed around the time of its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival* in 2009, Cain – a practising Jesuit priest and on the writing team for the US version of House of Cards – said the original meaning of equivocation was “a desperate search in impossible times to tell the real truth” and asserted that when a questioner is not honest, there can be no honest answer. He also said his play is as much about life in the 21st century as that in the 17th century.
So here's my question: would I risk getting him into trouble if I asserted that what Equivocation is really about is the USA's invasion of Iraq in 2003, on the pretext that Saddam Hussain was hiding weapons of mass destruction; about the moral high ground the USA still attempts to claim in the ‘war against terror', which continues to claim countless civilian lives excused as ‘collateral damage'?
Is it also relevant to note that the stylised Guy Fawkes mask, based on David Lloyd's illustrations in the graphic novel V for Vendetta, has been adopted by the ‘hacktivist' group Anonymous, the Occupy movement and other anti-government and anti-establishment protesters around the world?
A brief clip of the original production suggests it was done in American accents and the Kiwi cast of this Circa production happily use their own voices too – a common convention for doing Shakespeare nowadays – except King James and another wannabe Scottish king are given broad Scots accents, and ‘Shag' – attempting to disguise himself as a gaoler – briefly employs a cockney accent. The equally common ‘modern dress' convention is eschewed, however, in favour of Jacobean costumes, splendidly designed by Donna Jefferis (and made with help from Toi Whakaari Costume Construction students).
The ‘make-believe' game that is play-making is openly celebrated in this production. Director Peter Hambleton embraces all the performance conventions of London's Globe Theatre, albeit on stage designer Andrew Foster's ‘wooden V' thrust stage, dramatically lit by Jennifer Lal with houselights semi-up most of the time, and with a sound design by Matt Eller that also brings us into the modern age. The actors constantly address the audience directly and often occupy the auditorium, sometimes to physically engage with audience members. (And at one point on opening night I am named as the possible source of a leak!)
“We are a co-operative venture!” the Globe actors declare more than once, and the Circa actors gleefully play the parallel (although the Circa model involves creating a co-op for each production rather than sustaining a fulltime company of share-holding actors). When Gavin Rutherford appears as a female character in one of Shag's plays, late in the game, his annual outing as pantomime dame is clearly referenced.
But the play is the thing that engages us most and the actors' capacity to declare “I AM” this character, or another one (four of the six play multiple roles), is crucial to our getting it. Only once or twice does the acting overshadow the play, and sometimes sustained shouting denies more interesting textures. Otherwise the cast proves astonishingly adept at navigating the play's complexities to make it all seem effortless. And they deliver the guts with due impact.
The hangings, implied drawing and quartering, the violence and sword-fights – choreographed by Allan henry – are mercifully staged in ways that show what's happening while assuring us no-one is getting hurt. Nevertheless we are left in no doubt that little has changed when it comes to surviving, let alone maintaining some degree of integrity – not to mention preserving your immortal soul – in the face of duplicitous politics and cruel so-called justice.
The premise is clearly stated up front, with ‘Shag' reacting to the commission being ‘offered' by Secretary of State and King James' spymaster, Sir Robert Cecil, son of William Cecil, who was principal adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare's model for the “tedious old fool” Polonius, in Hamlet. For Shakespeare scholars, the subtext to ‘Shag's, “We don't do current events” is that his socio-political commentary on contemporary life is buried within tales of yesteryear and often set elsewhere.
The company of actors is discovered in the throes of rehearsing the blasted heath scene from Shag's latest effort, King Lear, about which they have a number of complaints. Thus we are introduced to Richard Burbage struggling to master the demented Lear, Robert Armin as his Fool, seasoned actor Nate as Kent and young actor Sharpe as Edgar/Poor Tom, who is outraged at not having a decent costume. News of the proposed commission soon focuses their minds on a bigger problem, given their potential exposure to retribution and financial ruin if they don't toe the party line.
‘Shag's attempts to research the ‘plot' so he can dramatise it with some degree of credibility raise major doubts that test his integrity and foment even more conflict within the company. It's the condemned Jesuit priest, Fr Henry Garnet, who tutors him on the art of equivocation, perceives that ‘Shag' is still grieving for his son (Hamnet, who died aged eleven) and counsels him to pay more attention to the surviving twin daughter, Judith.
In lesser hands all these threads could get into a terrible tangle but here they intersect to weave a pattern that reveals many abiding truths about human existence. Like Shakespeare's plays, Equivocation is accessible to anyone. And if you happen to be familiar with Hamlet, Richard III, King Lear and Macbeth – and have some awareness of his last four plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest – there are bonuses to be enjoyed.
Andrew Foster excels as ‘Shag', navigating a volatile range of issues and obstacles in his quest for preserving his soul without losing his head. His developing relationship with Judith, astutely portrayed by Tai Berdinner-Blades, adds a crucial dimension to the play. And her soliloquised commentaries about her father's plays, theatre in general and soliloquies in particular, are delicious.
In the contrasting roles of Richard Burbage and Fr Garnet, Paul McLaughlin compels our understanding and empathy. Jason Whyte is odiously insidious as Sir Robert Cecil yet, in the best tradition of anti-heroes, he garners our sympathy for his self-inflicted fate.
As Armin, the resident clown and sometime actor of female roles, Gavin Rutherford chooses to ham it up at times, including in the ‘real' rather than dramatised role of prosecutor Sir Edward Coke, but the satirical shafts still hit home where they count.
As Sharpe, the bumptious young actor, totured ‘conspirator' Thomas Wintour, and as King James, whose power ensures his naiveté and foolishness cannot be dismissed, Tom Eason is exceptional. His fearless commitment to every dimension of his roles is refreshing and exciting.
I won't reveal how ‘Shag' and The Kings Men solve their dilemma. Not only is it ingenious but it stands up to scrutiny against the historical record of known events, including when Shakespeare's plays were first performed. The more I delve into it, the more I respect Bill Cain's script; a thoroughly entertaining work of true scholarship and humanity.
Equivocation has been a long time coming to Circa, what with Peter Hambleton being waylaid by The Hobbit trilogy. In the meantime events have occurred on the world stage that make it even more relevant than when it was written. Deftly modulated by Hambleton and company, this is rich, potent and rewarding theatre, not to be missed.
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*The Artistic Director at the time was New Zealander Paul Nicholson, who was administrative director of Downstage Theatre from 1975 to 1980 before taking up the position of assistant general manager of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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