Explosive stuff

The RSC's bold new Gunpowder season features Jacobean drama with a ring of familiarity. Modern audiences may find the issues of religious intolerance and xenophobia rather close to home
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The Independent Culture

5 November 2005 is the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, an event that - now dubbed, with the irony of hindsight, "5/11" - has strong claims to be considered as significant a feat of religious terrorism for its time as 9/11 has been for ours. One major difference is that the attempt, on behalf of oppressed and discriminated-against Catholics, to blow up the reigning monarch and both Houses of Parliament was discovered and foiled, whereas its modern equivalent scored a horrific (if partial) success. But Greg Doran, associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a man with a Catholic background in Lancashire, regards the plot as a watershed in English history: "The beginning of a growing sense of instability, of dislocation and of a loss of moorings".

5 November 2005 is the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, an event that - now dubbed, with the irony of hindsight, "5/11" - has strong claims to be considered as significant a feat of religious terrorism for its time as 9/11 has been for ours. One major difference is that the attempt, on behalf of oppressed and discriminated-against Catholics, to blow up the reigning monarch and both Houses of Parliament was discovered and foiled, whereas its modern equivalent scored a horrific (if partial) success. But Greg Doran, associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a man with a Catholic background in Lancashire, regards the plot as a watershed in English history: "The beginning of a growing sense of instability, of dislocation and of a loss of moorings".

With the English Parliament known to be a priority target for al-Qa'ida and the anniversary of the Jacobean precedent in the offing, now is a propitious moment for Doran to be launching a Gunpowder season at Stratford. This series of plays builds on the wonderful work achieved by the director's 2003 Jacobethan festival, which rescued from the eclipsing shadow of Shakespeare vibrant dramas from some of his talented contemporaries and rightly won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement of the Year.

The spirit of the enterprise was the reverse of fusty and antiquarian. The accent was on the live nature of the issues these playwrights were handling. For example, Massinger's Roman Actor (which inspired a bravura performance from Doran's partner, Antony Sher) examined the tricky and treacherous relationship between the theatre and totalitarian power. A rarity such as John Fletcher's Island Princess suggested highly intriguing connections between Jacobean notions of imperialism and of sexual tourism and ours, while a singular revival of Edward III allowed us to weigh, through direct theatrical experience, the conflicting claims about the possible Shakespearean authorship of the piece.

The new season ups the ante. There's the distinct crackle of controversy and of danger as these rediscovered pieces hold up a jolting Jacobean mirror to some of our most pressing current preoccupations and predicaments. The black 1618 comedy A New Way to Please You (originally called The Old Law) by Thomas Middleton forges a disturbing link with the modern world of "living wills" and of euthanasia as it imagines a dystopian state that has instituted, on ruthless utilitarian grounds, a compulsory culling of all men when they reach 80 and of women when they hit 60. In Philip Massinger's 1631 play Believe What You Will (the name updated from Believe As You List), a Middle Eastern leader emerges from hiding after a crushing defeat and tries to rally his people, only to be pursued from state to state by the superpower of the day (the Roman empire) which imposes sanctions on, and dangles the threat of war before, any country minded to offer him sanctuary. Modern parallels, anyone?

Censorship - that extreme form of intolerance toward works that refuse to toe the accepted government line - was the risk that all these plays faced, as they struggled to reach the stage in panicky times. For example, the first version of Believe What You Will was based on the life of Don Sebastian, King of Portugal, after his catastrophic defeat in Morocco in 1576. The United States of the day - the superpower which hounded him - was Spain. The piece was blocked by the censor - aka the Master of the Revels, an office established in 1581 in the reign of Elizabeth I - for political reasons because (as the verdict put it) "it did contain dangerous matter, as the deposing of Sebastian king of Portugal, by Philip the [Second] and there being a peace sworn twixt the kings of England and Spain". Massinger was accordingly forced to transpose the story to a much earlier period.

Greg Doran recalls being in a taxi in New York shortly after September 11. All cab drivers in that city have to have their name and licence number prominently displayed on the dividing glass screen. This particular driver's name was Mohammed Abdullah. You can understand, says Doran, why the poor man felt the need to festoon his car with stickers proclaiming "I Love America" and "America Forever". The deterioration of the parlous position of Catholics after the Gunpowder Plot has, he maintains, affinities with the problems confronting Muslims (or people with Middle Eastern or Muslim-sounding names) in the United States and elsewhere after the Twin Towers tragedy.

There's an interesting twist to the official disapproval that was trained severely on the play that Doran himself is going to direct in the season. Published in 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, Ben Jonson's Sejanus: His Fall - a deliberately travestied tragedy that charts the rise and rise and then headlong fall of an unscrupulous favourite in the decadent court of Tiberius Caesar, and which conveys the close-to-home feel of what it is like to live in a virtual police state, with show trials and oppressive censorship - caused its author to be hauled before the Privy Council to be called on to answer the accusation that his play showed Popish and unreasonable tendencies. For Doran, this demonstrates that anything felt to be anti-establishment by the establishment "could find itself tarred with the anti-Catholic brush. The charge of having 'Popish tendencies' had become a convenient catch-all term of abuse". Does that ring any bells with now?

The spectre of censorship rises most fascinatingly, though, in regard to Thomas More, which opens today at Stratford in a production directed by Robert Delamere. A multi-authored piece (mostly written by Anthony Munday), the play has a double distinction. Revised after it was refused a licence by the censor, its rewritten version not only contains a 147-line crowd scene by a certain William Shakespeare, but that scene survives in manuscript in the only extended example of the Bard's own hand that we have, apart from six signatures on non-dramatic documents. Like all the plays in the season, Thomas More challenges a modern audience with the unexpected. On being informed that this play had met with disapproval from the Master of the Revels, most people would think it easy to guess the reasons why. As we know from Robert Bolt's modern classic A Man for All Seasons, More was a man who, in 1535, chose to be a martyr of conscience (refusing to accept the Act of Supremacy that declared his master, Henry VIII, the "Supreme Head of the Church in England") rather than retain worldly power.

But though the second half of the play dramatises More's fall, the specific doctrinal causes of this are left vague. No, the reason that the state censor demanded cuts and rewrites is because the first half of the play depicts a May Day race riot (based on an actual case in 1517) where Londoners are shown about to go on the rampage against immigrants from Lombardy whom they see as a threat to their employment prospects and to their wives and property. Shakespeare's crowd scene depicts More eloquently quelling that unrest. The piece therefore depicts a world that chimes with our own anxieties and moral evasions over asylum-seekers.

The treatment of the issue is provocative because what gave the censor pause will give a modern audience pause, too. The early scenes may not quite be the Elizabethan and Jacobean equivalent of a Daily Mail editorial, but they do present the grievances of Londoners in uncompromising terms. Citizens air their annoyance at the theft and the wife-filching and the various economic disadvantages occasioned by Johnny Foreigner. There's no time expended here on thoughts of mind-broadening cultural diversity and of the social benefits to be gained from welcoming people with special skills. It is only when More and the imagination of Shakespeare arrive with the plea for fellow-feeling - "Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,/ Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,/ Plodding to th' ports and coasts for transportation,/ And that you sit as kings in your desires,/ Authority quite silenced by your brawl,/ And you in ruff of your opinions clothed:/ What had you got?" - that you reckon it would be safe to sit our Prime Minister in front of this piece.

Given that there was a renewed climate of combustible intolerance at the time when the play was written, you can understand why the censor, even after the rewrites, testily ordered the authors to "Leave out the insurrection wholly, and the cause thereof..." Its depiction comes across as inflammatory.

For Robert Delamere, the challenge is to keep faith with the almost Brechtian episode-by-episode approach and to find a theatrical context for what he finely calls the "double consciousness of the piece", pointing out that Anthony Munday, who is the main author, was himself a bit of a double agent. In his youth he was a spy who infiltrated the English college in Rome incognito to uncover the plans of the English Catholic refugees.

But then there's an invigorating absence of political correctness in all the pieces that comprise this Gunpowder season. Sean Holmes, who in the 2003 festival mounted such a politically and theatrically persuasive production of Massinger's Roman Actor, now has the job of projecting to a modern audience a Jacobean play about euthanasia. As he says, "It's arguable that the concerns of [ A New Way to Please You] have become even more topical given our ageing population. In the play, the killing off of the elderly seems to have been principally a vehicle for a look at the possible abuses of state power and at the frightening ease with which a whole society can become Nazified. But the subject becomes one of real substance now in a world of living wills and worry about emotional pressures on the old to make a timely exit in favour of their children." And as Doran argues, the piece fits into the season because of the heightened manner in which it depicts a society badly adrift from its traditional pieties.

The sequence will be brought to a close with Speaking Like Magpies, a specially commissioned new play about the political events of 1605, by Frank McGuinness. This is precisely the kind of bold, coherent and inaugurative programming that justifies the Royal Shakespeare Company's existence.

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