Acts of sedition: RSC's new season inspired by the Gunpowder Plot

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The 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot has inspired the Royal Shakespeare Company to present a series of little-known plays, including one so incendiary it was banned in Shakespeare's lifetime.

The 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot has inspired the Royal Shakespeare Company to present a series of little-known plays, including one so incendiary it was banned in Shakespeare's lifetime.

Next year's RSC season will examine the political and dramatic intrigue of the plot, and draw on more contemporary examples of instability and terror. The season will conclude with a new play, Speaking Like Magpies, about the Catholic plans to blow up the Houses of Parliament, written by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness.

The RSC describes the Gunpowder Plot as "the biggest act of terrorism in the Jacobean era". Two new plays will focus on the religious schisms of the 21st century and the climate after 11 September of international instability and terrorism.

Announcing the season, Michael Boyd, the RSC's artistic director, said it was part of the company's aim of looking at the Renaissance in ways no other company could. None of the works in the season have been performed by the RSC before.

The plays will be staged in the Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon and will be run by Gregory Doran, one of the RSC's associate directors. Mr Boyd added: "It's there in part because I'm a Northern Irishman and Greg's a slave of Rome and we have a different perspective."

Mr Doran said that it was important to understand the atmosphere of political intrigue and religious tensions at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. "The Catholic-Protestant jihad created extraordinary tensions. Elizabeth's attempt to take a middle way and suppress the extremes of Puritanism and Catholicism led to her having to run a police state."

The first play in the season is Thomas More, by Shakespeare, Munday and Chettle, written in the late 1590s but banned given the sensitivity of the story of More, the Catholic martyr, executed for treason over Henry VIII's divorce.

"More was the hottest political potato you could possibly have written about in the 1590s," Mr Doran said.

The play deals with race riots and dissent in London caused by what Mr Doran describes as asylum-seekers who had fled religious persecution on the Continent.

More attempts to quell an uprising by Londoners who fear their jobs are under threat, with pleas for racial harmony.

Notes from the Master of the Revels - the state censor - in the manuscript warn that it should be performed at the writers' peril and it appears it was not staged in Elizabeth I's lifetime.

Another work, Believe What You Will, by Philip Massinger, dating from 1631 and not performed since, deals with a Middle Eastern leader who, in his attempt to seek sanctuary in a series of Middle Eastern countries, is hounded from one to another by the Roman empire.

A political thriller by Ben Jonson will also be included. Sejanus - His Fall, which dates from 1605, analyses the politics of power through the murderous rise of Sejanus, the right-hand man to the decadent emperor, Tiberius.

The two new plays are The American Pilot by David Greig, about an American military man caught in an enemy nation, and Solstice by Zinnie Harris, which "examines themes of faith and terror in a world slipping out of control" in a situation similar to Palestine.

The season will close on Bonfire Night, 5 November.


  • Gunpowder - a season of four little-known Jacobean and Elizabethan political plays, plus a new play commissioned from Frank McGuinness.
  • Four Shakespeare comedies - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors and As You Like It - in repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
  • Two new plays by young British playwrights Zinnie Harris and David Greig at The Other Place.
  • A festival of new work, including the premieres of Breakfast with Mugabe, about the Zimbabwean leader seeing a psychiatrist, and Eric La Rue, a play about a Columbine-style high school massacre in the United States.