Friday 11 July 2014

Equivocation tells tales of "truthiness" then & now

Equivocation : the word :  What does it mean to equivocate? Here's a prime example all parents of teenagers will recognize. Mom : "Have you done your homework, Amanda?" Amanda : "I've done all I need to do, Mom!" So. If the homework was two pages of math problems, Amanda may have done one problem, one page, all of the assignment or none of it whatever. But she has not lied. She has told her Mom that she has done all she, in her mind, feels she needs to do. That's equivocation. 

Flashback : It would be hard to imagine that playwright Bill Cain was not intimately aware of David Pownall's brilliant script Master Class from 30 years back. That chilling and unsettling story pitted famous Russian composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich against a ranting and sardonic Josef Stalin and his chief cultural agit-prop commissar, the terrifying Andrei Zhdanov. They accuse the composers of writing "romantic" and "reactionary" music that is decidedly un-Soviet. The two bully and threaten P & S mercilessly, demanding they conform to party-line. Stalin plays frisbee with their fragile 78 rpms.

Analogously, Bill Cain imagines a middle-age Shakespeare who has been the darling of the Elizabethan Court who's now been thrust into James I's reign during the early Jacobean era. It's been just a couple of years since the Protestant Scottish king was installed on the English throne. (Mr. Cain appears to be among the scholars who have argued that Shakespeare -- who claimed to be "just a writer" with no church affiliation -- was a Catholic sympathizer at least or even a christened crypto-convert.) Meanwhile in 1603 Guy Fawkes and some fellow travelers were accused of masterminding The Gunpowder Plot [TGP] -- an alleged conspiracy by Catholics to blow up the House of Lords using 36 barrels of gunpowder on a day Britain's Protestant king was to be present. (The bombing didn't happen, obviously.)

Enter the Zhdanov clone, Sir Robert Cecil, King James' commissar  after achieving high office during the just-ended Elizabeth I reign as well. He wants WS to write the "official version" about the unproven allegations surrounding TGP. Agit-prop for the king. A shill. A whitewash. Make the king look good. A 1605 version of post-9/11 George Bush. The Decider. The Enemy Killer. Which will make Shakespeare the king's pet playwright in the bargain. Cecil hands WS a draft plot written, he says, by the king himself.

(F.Y.I. In the program WS's name is spelled "Shagspeare".  Reason? That rendering was a common alternate at the time, same as "Blaxton" is a common re-spelling of "Blackstone".)

The Bard is sore troubled. Playwrights don't deal in current events, he protests, they deal in stories. "How can there be anything 'true' about a play?" his daughter Judith demands. Shakespeare's chief protagonist Richard Burbage agrees. "We hold mirrors up, nothing more!" to which Judith adds : "If you told people the truth, they'd run to the exits." But the Bard insists : "I'd like to leave behind at least one play that was true." Cautioned anew how treasonous this may turn out in the end, he quips ruefully : "I want to tell the truth, I just don't want to die from it."

The plot thickens : Under pressure, Shakespeare starts the task of investigating the facts behind TGP. He discovers the confessors had been subjected to horrific torture. What if I determine TGP was all an elaborate hoax to isolate and demonize England's Catholics? James and Cecil might just be looking for ways to further marginalize them, he muses. Hmnn, what if I write up this "truth" instead of the "official version"? Go along like a good loyal servant and you lose not only your integrity, your voice, your fierce independence. But be true to yourself and what about your favoured court status and fat paycheques that come with it? Worse, what about your head mounted on a pike?

Still, WS decides he will tell a "weighted" or "nuanced" or "two-sided" version of TGP. Some in his troupe think this is a death wish. And then the menacing Cecil apparently gets his hands on a leaked copy of the revisionist script. Garbage, he insists, unworthy of performance before the king. "Write the play!" he thunders repeatedly at the Bard. So back to the drawing board : resist and rebel and you lose your head, quite likely.

Lots to sort through : Cain's script covers a wide range of settings, plots and subplots and characters. He brings in the Bard's acting troupe, a "co-operative venture" whose members own shares. They're a rumbustious lot given to squabbling and nattering. They speak contemporary street lingo when not reciting scripted play lines. The lingo is quick and familiar, e.g. in talking about the first-draft TGP script, one actor complains "It's a four-act build-up to a blow-up that doesn't happen!" to which another replies : "Sounds like my marriage!" Rehearsing, the group starts off with snatches from King Lear, first, then later do the same with some fresh Macbeth Shakespeare had started to pen as escape from the migraine the TGP project was inducing. Ultimately Macbeth becomes the alternate script Shakespeare and his gang present to James over Cecil's vehement opposition. 

Then there's Judith, Shakespeare's daughter, twin to WS's late son Hamnet whose death when the Bard was in his 30's he apparently never got over. To the point he was incapable, it seems, of having even one iota of love left over for Judith. Judith is her dad's intellectual tease, a sad but ironic maiden who does his laundry and surreptitiously critiques his scripts, old and new. 

Finally there are the imprisoned and tortured co-conspirators whom Shakespeare, quite improbably, has been given access to by Cecil to interview before they are hanged, disemboweled, drawn, quartered and their dismembered bodies displayed around the city. [Ahh religion, ahh politics, ahh forgiveness.] 

Layers past point to layers present : These countless layers at play reach from the sublime to wretched ordinary. Religious dissonance and conspiracy. Bard of Avon's jealous and sniping actors. Internal political rivalries and conspiracies. Terrorism. Torture. Bloodlust. 

How to survive? Learn the fine art of equivocation, that's how. When James asks Cecil if torture has been employed on TGP's alleged conspirators, Cecil responds : "We are a country of laws, Majesty." James concludes : "So there is no torture." [One cannot help but hear Kevin Spacey from House of Cards doing Cecil.] Sort of like a B-side version of Bush/Cheney on Saddam Hussein's WMD. Hans Blix couldn't find the WMD stockpile, but those desert water pipes just might be rocket launchers. So Operation Iraqi Freedom is launched. And was a mighty Mission Accomplished to boot, the world was told, scant months later. 

Where oh where does the truth lie? Everywhere. Except in equivocation. That's when truth bobs, weaves and dodges.

The company of actors : Just six actors play nearly a dozen roles in the piece, switching instantly from royalty & confidants to Shakespeare's players as themselves as well as their Lear and Macbeth parts, then flipping to the doomed conspirators and lawyers in the courts and back again. In so doing all of this Cain presents not only an extremely intriguing inside look at how drama was probably put together by WS and his troupe but also paints a tribute to public theatre as a medium -- means for people to discern and process certain human truths that "reality bites" make too hard to digest sometimes. (Cain founded and for seven years was artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company.)

Cast highlights : There is so much acting to simply adore in this performance. Comic scene-stealer Anton Lipovetsky as both troupe actor Richard Sharpe and as King James was impish as the latter and full of impetuous braggadocio as the former. Sheer delight from start to finish. 

Anousha Alamian fair-boggled this viewer's mind with his nanosecond switches in character between Cecil, cast with a deformed leg, and the part of Nate in the troupe -- often in mid-pirouette. 

As "Shagspeare" Bob Frazer turns in a robust and rounded and vigorous and rich WS for sure. Cain is to be praised for presenting such a characterization to bring the "man" alive imaginatively instead of only his writing which is what we historically are limited to.

Upon reflecting and re-reflecting on the night, meanwhile, I come back repeatedly to Gerry Mackay as both the troupe's Richard Burbage and as the accused Catholic co-conspirator Father Henry Garnet. His booming voice, his passion in both roles, his pleading for insight from WS, his teachings on equivocation -- answer a dishonest man's question with truth from your heart, not a "yes" or a "no", answer the question-behind-the-question -- his was just tour de force delivery. Bravo.

Production values : Director Michael Shamata staged and blocked and "business'd" his people imaginatively indeed on the surround mise en scene at the Howard Family Stage whose set by designer Kevin McAllister was simple with its courtly banquet table and leather armchair. Nancy Bryant's costumes were compelling : period pantaloons and collars, kingly ermines, sweaty linens, distressed leathers. Nice!

So, what else? : Playwright Bill Cain's script has been called "overweening", as well as "exhaustive and exhausting". I am inclined to critique it as overambitious; repetitive on theme (the "truth"-vs-"story" comparison again and again); repetitive and a bit trite on dialogue (too many references to "We are all fools, we are all noble. There is no way to run from yourself" and/or "We are all broken in the end"), and, finally, maybe a bit too cute in spots : the Bard laments that the Anglican scheme of Christianity mounted by Henry VIII did away with Purgatory. He misses it because Purgatory is "somewhere for people who won't make Heaven on the first try. You know, sex before marriage, sex outside of marriage, sex everywhere except in marriage."

Still, there are poignant moments of acting and theme development both. In the scene where WS is in prison cradling the tortured and broken conspirator Thomas Wintour (Lipovetsky), who tells him : "The problem (with this country) began when even people like you began calling a killer of his wives a head of church." Instantly my mind generalized and jumped to Israel / Palestine; Iraq; Egypt; Syria; Nigeria. Power politics. Religion. Money. Revenge. Tribalism. Same old same old.

Or take this exchange between Cecil and WS near  play's end :

"Truth is not a game!", Cecil insists.

"Of course truth is a game -- it's the lies that are not a game!" the Bard retorts.

Further on theme. Cain told LA Times interviewer Reed Johnson in November, 2009 that "Shakespeare did very well, very very well. He became a rich man writing for a corrupt government. And I began to wonder about the moral dilemma of that." 

Later in the same interview, pointing to his home and native land, Cain continued : "It struck me very much that the politics of the United States is a position of radical division. And what we are trying to do now, as Shakespeare tries to do in the play, is to write a new soul into the country."

Whether any people or country can "write a new soul" for themselves is the stuff of lifetimes, of generations, of the millennia across the universe. 

Who gonna like : Equivocation -- without a word of a lie... -- is aimed by the playwright to please serious Shakespeare aficionados, not Shakespeare newbies. The breadth and scope of the interwoven motifs and original script dialogue are so complex that probably only those who know WS fairly intimately will derive the full measure of pleasure the cost of a ticket would justify. While the acting, as noted, is indeed superb for the most part, there's a likelihood of intellectual and theatrical vertigo for folks who might be just slightly initiated into Bard lore.

*  *  *  *  *

Equivocation. By Bill Cain. Co-produced with Belfry Theatre, Victoria, BC. In repertory with Cymbeline at the Howard Family Stage, Vanier Park, until September 19.

Production team. Directed by Michael Shamata. Scenery design : Kevin McAllister. Costume design : Nancy Bryant. Lighting design : Alan Brodie. Composer & Sound design : Tobin Stokes. Stage manager : Jennifer Swan. Assistant stage manager : Ben Cheung. Fight director : Nicholas Harrison. Assistant director : Katrina Darychuk.

Cast. Anousha Alamian as Nate / Sir Robert Cecil.  Rachel Cairns as Judith.  Bob Frazer as Shagspeare.  Anton Lipovetskey as Sharpe / King James.  Shawn MacDonald as Armin / Sir Edward Coke.  Gerry Mackay as Richard Burbage / Father Henry Garnet.


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