The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt

Studio 77, Victoria University, 77 Fairlie Tce, Kelburn, Wellington

19/05/2010 - 22/05/2010

Production Details

“I through death will run”: dead and forgotten for 400 years, Webster and Dekker’s play is resurrected at Studio 77 this month
Imagine discovering the Pompeii body casts for the first time – a horrific yet fascinating preservation of what life looked like 2000 years ago. Getting their teeth into this forgotten Elizabethan script has been a similar experience for the students of Victoria University of Wellington’s 300-level ‘Conventions of Drama and Theatre’ course – as they rehearse for its first public performance in 400 years, at Studio 77 this month, they are unearthing a piece of history.
The Famous History Of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Renaissance playwrights John Webster and Thomas Dekker dramatizes the historical struggle of succession after the death of King Edward VI. Sir Thomas Wyatt’s allegiance to Henry VIII’s will swings support to Bloody Mary against the tragic usurper Lady Jane Grey, but at what cost to England? Wyatt’s loyalty to England above all casts him first as hero, then as traitor. The play comes from a time in history when the English monarchy meant more than gossip magazines and token visits to commonwealth nations. It comes from a time when sovereignty was a job ordained by God, and when having red hair was not only powerful but dangerous.
“It’s exciting for us as young actors to be the first people to perform this play since Elizabethan times…we get to set the precedent for how these historical characters are interpreted today,” says actress Jo Winslade. 
The Conventions course has a history of pioneering the rediscovery of long-neglected Renaissance plays, including almost the entire Webster canon. Last year it produced the world premiere of Professor Gary Taylor’s ‘creative reconstruction’ of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s lost play The History of Cardenio. “It’s the theatrical equivalent of archaeology,” says course coordinator and director David Lawrence. “The students of THEA302 get more than just the opportunity to put obscure plays on stage – they’re helping solve another piece in the whole crazy jigsaw puzzle of Renaissance theatre.” 
What: The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt, by John Webster and Thomas Dekker, directed by David Lawrence, performed and designed by the students of THEA302 and THEA324, with dramaturgical expertise from Professor David Carnegie.
Wednesday 19 to Saturday 22 May 2010, 7.30pm
Where: Studio 77, 77 Fairlie Terrace, Kelburn (Gate 10 of Victoria University)
Tickets: $8 unwaged $15 waged

To book: email or call 04 463 5359

Cast (in order of appearance)

The Duke of Suffolk                                              ABBY RAINBOW

The Duke of Northumberland                               OWEN BEHRENS

Sir Thomas Wyatt                                                 PIP KAYSER

A Doctor                                                                TOMMY DAVIS

A Preacher                                                            THOMAS PEPPERELL

Jane daughter to Suffolk                                       EMMA OLSEN

Guildford Dudley son to Northumberland            TRAVIS GRAHAM

The Earl of Arundell                                              JODIE ROWE

Mary daughter of Henry VIII                                 AMELIA REYNOLDS

Sir Henry Beningfield                                            THOMAS PEPPERELL

Captain Bret                                                          LOUISE KELLY

Lord Treasurer                                                       YE LIN LEE

Porter                                                                     KRISTEN FINLAYSON

The Clown                                                              AMANDA COWAN

A Countryman                                                        THOMAS PEPPERELL

A Maid                                                                   REBECCA BRYAN

Ambrose son to Northumberland                          THOMAS PEPPERELL

Master Roose                                                        KRISTEN FINLAYSON

Ned Holmes servant to Suffolk                              TOMMY DAVIS

A Sheriff                                                                 THOMAS PEPPERELL

The Bishop of Winchester                                     JO WINSLADE

The Duke of Norfolk                                               LISA MISSEN

The Earl of Pembroke                                             REBECCA BRYAN

Edmond Ambassador of Spain                                KRISTEN FINLAYSON

Lieutenant of the Tower of London                        THOMAS PEPPERELL

Sir George Harper                                                   YE LIN LEE

Sir Robert Rodston                                                  KRISTEN FINLAYSON      

Sir Henry Isley                                                         TOMMY DAVIS

Norry                                                                       THOMAS PEPPERELL

Clerk of the Court                                                    TOMMY DAVIS

Ellen waiting-woman to Jane                                  YE LIN LEE

A Headsman                                                            KRISTEN FINLAYSON

Soldiers, Heralds, Officers, Citizens, Councillors, Lords, Knights, Messengers, Attendants, Meat-Puppets played by members of the company


Set Design                                                               CASSANDRA PHILPS

Costume Design                                                      ABBY RAINBOW

Lighting Design                                                       SAM STEEDS

Music                                                                       YE LIN LEE, LOUISE KELLY

Dramaturg                                                                DAVID CARNEGIE

Director                                                                    DAVID LAWRENCE

1hr 45 mins, no interval

Fluid, well-paced and clear but cannot avoid the bathos

Review by John Smythe 20th May 2010

That this is claimed as the first public performance in 400 years of the oddly-named The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Thomas Dekker and John Webster is reason enough to review it. In fact it is the world premiere of this particular version, rendered playable by dramaturg Professor David Carnegie and director David Lawrence from the surviving 1607 text, described in a programme note as “rough, with omissions, repetitions, confusions, incomplete verse lines, and sometimes utter nonsense.”

Scholars have concluded it conflates two lost plays called Lady Jane (the second part of which may have been known as The Overthrow of the Rebels) in which three other writers – Thomas Heywood, Henry Chettle and Wentworth Smith – probably had a hand. Sounds like the Jacobean version of a Hollywood studio system.

The title page for The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt as played by the Queenes Majesties Servants, and published in 1607, includes “with the coronation of Queen Mary and the coming of King Philip” but the script doesn’t take the story that far, and I don’t think set piece tableaux, as spectacle, were in theatrical fashion at that time.

The play’s heart remains with Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guildford Dudley, their loving relationship sincerely played by Emma Olsen and Travis Graham. It’s his ambitious father, the Earl of Northumberland (Owen Behrens), who, on the death of Edward VI (the youngest child and only son of Henry VIII), overturns the will of the said Henry in order to install Protestant Jane on the throne of England.

Sir Thomas Wyatt – a strong and confident presence, as embodied by Pip Kayser – convinces other nobles to regain the throne for the rightful heir, Catholic Mary Tudor (older daughter of Henry VIII), only briefly seen and played with no-nonsense focus by Amelia Reynolds.

Wyatt’s campaign succeeds, but when it becomes apparent that Mary intends to marry Prince Philip of Spain, his hatred of the Spaniards causes him to raise an army of rebels against Mary (in favour of her younger sister Elizabeth, history records, although she doesn’t get much of a mention in this play).

Although David Lawrence makes it clear that the directorial agenda is simply to give students of THEA 302 (Conventions of Drama and Theatre) “the opportunity to work first-hand on a Renaissance play that hasn’t, until now, had much in the way of academic or editorial attention,” there are some inevitable resonances with life as we know it. The self-preservational jockeying for position as circumstances change, for example, was ever thus.

It’s tempting to see echoes of Winston Peters and Pauline Hanson’s fear of foreigners in the anti Spanish sentiments, except a Spaniard getting into bed with the monarch is rather different than having a family move into your suburb. But the way Captain Brett (Louise Kelly) rallies the troops by fomenting hatred against the “don dagos”, the “desperate villiagos”, who will “make us all smell”, reeks very strongly of the tactics still used in racial, religious and sectarian battles around the world.

Of course the penalty today for being on the losing side of a battle for power is not quite “death by fire”, being “hanged and quartered” or – the quick and therefore compassionate option – being beheaded. But it’s easy to see these fates, and the means by which they’re achieved, as metaphors for the political coups and character assassinations that prevail in today’s political climates.

Amid the scenes of political intrigue in high places, one involving ‘the lower orders’ stands out. Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk (Abby Rainbow), is on the run, in hiding and hungry when his faithful servant Ned Holes (Tommy Davis) tracks him down to bring food and drink, only to betray his ex-master the ‘authorities’. Then, wracked with a guilty conscience, Ned takes his own life. Despite the mysterious appearance from the flies of a handy noose, it plays out as a very human and poignant – intensified by being observed by the (now well-established) Clown character (Amanda Cowan), who only sees it as an opportunity to score free food and drink and some gold. It’s a sobering exposé of the sociopath that lurks within us all.

The use of an offstage drum roll and beat to signify capital punishments is effective, although some of the bugling could be better. In what has become a Lawrence trademark, the battles are signified with spirited shouting as colour-coded soldiers chase each other off and on stage (perhaps its time to dub this device the Lawrentian battle-go-round).

Staged on a thrust platform backed by three arched entry/exit points (one established early as the final exit for some), the action is fluid, well-paced and always clear in its intentions. But too much is played as if the audience was all out front, notably the few solo direct-address pieces (which are not really soliloquies), where placing the speaker downstage centre disenfranchises two thirds of the audience, and scenes where large groups of soldiers remain static with their backs to one side and mask the main action from a significant portion of the audience for sustained periods.

As always with a classic (not that this can be called one) directed by Lawrence, each character is very clearly delineated and everyone in the large cast knows who they are, why they are there, the purpose of each scene and their purpose in it. Although actual acting skills vary, no-one lets the side down and some show significant talent. The students of THEA 324 (The Scenographic Imagination) have also done an excellent job with the set (Cassandra Philp) and lighting (Sam Steeds) and the costumes designed by Abby Rainbow are very good too.

Only in the last few moments does the play descend into bathos, when Guildford is obliged, in all seriousness, to wax lyrical over the just-severed head of his beloved Jane without its being a ‘mad scene’. Although the moral – that the fathers’ pride has caused their children’s downfall – is true enough, credibility cannot be retrieved.  

This and the multi-authored play’s attempt to move the focus from Jane to its interesting but non-heroic title character probably explains why it has languished unperformed for four centuries.

But while it is not up there with last year’s The History of Cardenio as a play, this production of The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyatt certainly serves its academic purpose. And it reminds us that not all Renaissance Theatre was wonderful, even when the likes of John Webster (who went on to write The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi) were involved. He had to learn his craft, too, by getting produced.   
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