THEATRE / Clearer view of a dark archive

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IN MARLOWE'S The Massacre at Paris with the streets running in Protestant blood, the terrorist Duke of Guise encounters a timid old scholar and halts the pogrom for 30 lines of philosophic debate with this Aristotelian heretic before killing him. Latin one minute, cold steel the next.

It is impossible to imagine Shakespeare or any other Elizabethan writing such a scene. Only in Marlowe do you find the study and the bear-pit coming together with a calculated effrontery that constantly suggests the man behind the work. He is always there, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye and vanishing when you look directly; hence the perennial delvings into his murky archive in hope of a clear sighting. For reasons that may have more to do with the Stasi than the stage, the Marlowe industry has lately gone into overdrive: beginning last year with Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning, which presented its hero as a small-time spy trapped between the Essex and Ralegh factions - much to the distress of the Marlowe Society, which indignantly sprang to the defence of its 'bright . . . young genius'. Now comes Robin Chapman's novel Christoferus, which tells the story of Marlowe's murder from the viewpoint of Thomas Kyd (who informed against him under torture), to be followed later this year by two more treatments of the 'Deptford incident' by Judith Cook and Anthony Burgess.

The Marlowe Society might find further provocation in Peter Whelan's The School of Night (first seen in Stratford last year) as it endorses the legend of Marlowe's homosexuality, for which the only direct evidence is an informer's note. But this, like his opening satanic prayer (courtesy of Faustus) and apparition as a naked Ganymede (courtesy of Dido), is only a part of the play's long-range strategy. It is set in the country house of Thomas Walsingham (nephew of the Queen's spymaster), who was not only Marlowe's patron, but also 'master' of his killer, Ingram Frizer.

To these Whelan adds a fine collection of Elizabethan worthies including the Dark Lady (a commedia actress), the disgraced Ralegh (responding to Marlowe's 'Come live with me and be my love' with his own version of the poem), and Shakespeare (Nigel Cooke), who arrives as a humble player engaged to help out with the home theatricals. The theatres are shut, the times are jittery; so the house party becomes an oasis of feverish gaiety.

Up to a point, the fun that Whelan and his director (Bill Alexander) get out of it resembles that of a house party thriller. Menace is implicit from the start, and as it closes in you witness the transformation of Richard McCabe's Marlowe from challenging mockery to terror as a prisoner in danger of the stake ('They prescribe the fire for the crime of thought, so that nothing remains'), through to his defiant last stand with Frizer's twelvepenny dagger. The death must come; but before it does, Whelan lays a series of false trails involving the vocabulary of modern

espionage, and the idea that

if Marlowe escaped abroad, his future works could appear as Shakespeare's or under the anagramatic authorship of Wormale Hithercorps.

But the play's denouement has nothing to do with spying. It is the title that constitutes the real mystery. From the opening impieties, and from Ralegh's ruthless pursuit of its incriminating documents, the School of Night sounds sinister: but only because free thought, which Ralegh and Marlowe shared as members of the 'Wizard' Earl Northumberland's private academy, was forbidden. Jack Klaff's overbearing Ralegh shrivels under his jewels at the thought of the evidence reaching Elizabeth. 'She'd have me back if I could convince her that the School of Night was only a thing of the mind.' 'Things of the mind,' Marlowe replies, remembering that intellectual paradise, 'are all that matter.' This is a penetrating, engrossingly plotted tour de force, which banishes the spy and restores the poet. The Marlovians should be pleased.

Also from Stratford, John Caird's production of The Beggar's Opera transfers exuberantly to the main stage, with Kendra Ullyart's set - crazy gantries and shattered gilt boxes - suggesting a convict hulk crossed with a Drury Lane squat, and crammed to the rafters with the mendicant chorus which forms a main asset of Ilona Sekacz's score. Monotony, the usual hazard of unadorned folk tunes, gives way to aggressive new rhythms and orchestration (tin whistles, jazz saxophone, percussion) so strongly characterised as to evoke its own images - from a trolls' minuet in the whorehouse scene and a Hogarthian hurdy-gurdy for Peachum's chorale, to a melancholy chiming clock for Lucy's 'When young at the bar' (a lovely performance by Jenna Russell).

Music aside, the idea of this piece is always better than the actual show, particularly in the scenes before Macheath's arrest; and Caird joins a queue of directors who have tried to get around the deficiency by substituting business for action; with results more picturesque than gripping. I do not, however, agree with those who dismissed his work as bland. Blandness - the incongruity of criminal activity and genteel expression - is at the heart of this 'Newgate pastoral'; and the casting of David Burt as a magnanimously gallant and golden-voiced Macheath is not to be faulted. Violence masquerades as comedy in Paul Jesson's rat-faced Peachum; but once he is joined by Anthony O'Donnell's key-festooned Lockit there is as much ugliness, blood and narrative drive as anyone could want. The ending is a mess; otherwise an honourable, and fitfully brilliant event.

Long eclipsed by his big-name fellow authors at the pre-1914 Royal Court, St John Hankin re- emerges with the first of his Court plays, The Return of the Prodigal (1905), earning every word of Shaw's post-suicide obituary: 'A most gifted writer of high comedy of a kind that is a stirring and important criticism of life.' Hankin's prodigal, dumped in Australia by his mill-owning family, staggers home after five wasted years for a showdown between parasitic candour and purse- proud hypocrisy, from which the anti-hero emerges as a victorious blackmailer. Written in varying shades of grey, the piece combines devastating criticism of the rich (whether idle or industrious) with a bleakly determinist view of human character. More to the point, it uses social argument as material for wonderfully fertile comic invention, in which ironic plotting is reinforced with paralysingly funny one-liners. The caddishly winning Timothy Watson heads Peter Leslie Wild's company, who clearly know they are on to a good thing.

New Morning seems to follow on from Declan Hughes's Digging for Fire as another exercise in artfully phrased derision among the Dublin wine-bar set - credibly embodied by Anne Byrne and Gina Moxley as sabre-toothed siblings on a camping weekend. Then the ghost of Elvis wanders out of the woods to the eerie baying of hounds and the show goes up in Deep Southern smoke.

'The School of Night': Pit (071-638 8891). 'The Beggar's Opera': Barbican (071-638 8891). 'The Return of the Prodigal': Orange Tree (081- 940 3633). 'New Morning': Bush (081-743 3388).

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