UKIP achieving in the polls, mutterings of the final break up of the BBC, yawning questions about the reality of recovery or the direction of this country, a feeling that social differentials have returned to the 16th Century, without the patronage, and what greater place to look on its real greatness and courage again than through the tradition of its writers and that greatest age of theatre, the English Renaissance! It seems you do not need a rebirth when the kind of productions the Globe company just staged as The Duchess of Malfi are screened on BBC Two, in the new covered theatre next to Sam Wannamaker’s Globe Theatre on Bankside, now called The Sam Wannamaker Theatre. It is a beautiful little house, in fact much smaller than the real Blackfriars Theatre over the water from the original Globe, that the Burbage brothers fought so long to open, and where Shakespeare staged a performance of Henry VIII, in the very place that Henry had announced his Divorce to the Bishops, and the restructuring of the English Church. Perhaps art was never so far from truth as we think. So Ben Jonson referred to the new trend in theatre in The First Folio, with the audience sitting on the stage, the arrival of more expensive seats, candlelight that ended open air rounds and precursored ‘the limelight’, but also the darker, more intense tragedies of Jacobean theatre, in an age tipping towards Civil War.
But so you’ve had a bit of schooling or University and think you know it all, yet to rediscover Webster through this performance was almost miraculous. Perhaps that is the very point of reconstructed houses and doing it as it was, taking you back to the power of individual words and an individual consciousness. It is not the period costumes that naturally get in the way, it is the attempt to make things ‘modern’, when perhaps everything was always the same. It was written in 1612-1613, five years after Shakespeare’s brother’s death, probably the year Shakespeare wrote The Tempest and has all the flaws of the bloody revenge tragedy. Yet so does Hamlet, a stage strewn with corpses at the end, or King Lear, and what is so astonishing about both that age and the play is its profoundly revolutionary nature. In the creation of a woman as ‘The Prince’, and such a remarkable, articulate woman, raising up a man and steward because of his virtue and her love, but destroyed by the coiled lusts of near incestuous family possession and male power, it is feminist par excellence. Yet neither Shakespeare nor Webster would have placed themselves within the constraints of Feminism either, reaching to sound out the source of human tragedy, or the power of theatre to explore the human condition, in the empty glass of life’s performance. When men and woman are at war tragedy must ensue and Art is the struggle to understand. It remains a running question how, after the age of that greatest and most impossibly challenged Queen, Elizabeth I, and the death of a strangely female centric faith like Catholicism, with all its roots in female nature worship too, Puritanism so defined the model both of English power and English brutality, in the explosion of world capitalism that defines almost everything we do.
It is very hard to do such bloodletting on stage without it becoming comic, and yet this production, seemingly perfect for that little, powerful TV Box too – please give us more and you can have my license fee – proved that that very transition to intimate theatre was the movement from external symbols of faith towards the exploration of more intense individual human psychology, perhaps stripped of the life-giving link Shakespeare has to the generative power of nature itself, but set against the attempt to give meaning on any kind of wider philosophical life journey. Does it compare to Shakespeare? Well sometimes, if you see it within the movement of its age and what happened. But above all it and this production underlined the sacred place of theatre, to sound the heights and depths of the human ‘soul’, both foul and beautiful. Funny, careful, perfectly lit by candle light, sinister and deeply sexy, Gemma Aterton as the Duchess was brilliant and, though he will inevitably draw comparisons with Alan Cumming, David Dawson was utterly courageous. Dominic Dromgoole’s direction was a masterpiece of modern ‘period’ theatre, which frankly is just great theatre. Boy, having tried Kickstarter here, do we wish that world Globe venture with Hamlet had succeeded! But have no fear, British theatre is alive and well and living on Bankside (if you can afford the seats) and sometimes on the BBC too.