That most excellent renowned companie of players, by Royal charter called The Bacchanals present Mr Simon Vincent's Most Excellent Comedie of

A Renaissance Man photo(c) The Bacchanals

a renaissance man
A fantasie inspir'd by the life and poetry of Dr. Iohn Donne, Deane of St Paul's,
to be perform'd at BATS Theatre from the Tenth Day of Ianuarie until the Nineteenth Day of the same monthe in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eight.

The exciting adventures of John Donne, a bona-fide 17th century swashbuckler, skewerer of Spaniards and seducer of virgins. See him foil the murder of the Queen! Watch out as he grapples with his secret Catholicism! Meet the metaphysical poet in the flesh, alive on stage before your very eyes!

The players, in order of appearance:
A Prologue, to spoken by Mr JULIAN WILSON
A Gaoler ... Ms ERIN BANKS
Henry Donne, a Catholic martyr ... Mr ALEX GREIG
John Donne, his brother ... Mr PHIL PELETON
Edmund Campion, a Catholic priest ... Mr CARL HOMÉRE
The Earl of Essex, a secret Catholic ... Mr GAVIN RUTHERFORD
Sir Philip Sidney, chief interrogator for Queen Elizabeth ... Mr ALLAN HENRY
Stella Artöis, muse to Sidney ... Ms RACHEL MORE
Two Sailors in the service of Essex ... Mr HENRY and Ms BANKS
El Fortunado, an evil Spaniard ... Mr ALLAN HENRY
Anne More, betrothed to Sidney ... Ms ERIN BANKS
Tarquin Fulke-Greville, servant to Essex ... Mr ALEX GREIG
Two Semi-Offstage Papists ... Mr ALEX GREIG and Ms KARIN REINHOLT
Another Gaoler (Or Perhaps The Same, But Perform'd By A Different Actor)... Mr ALEX GREIG
Stage Manager ... Ms KARIN REINHOLT
Lighting ... Ms JENNIFER LAL
Photography ... Ms KARIN REINHOLT
Frock Design and Construction ... Ms RACHEL MORE and Ms SHARON MATHEWS
Fight Choreography ... Mr ALLAN HENRY
Chief Engineer ... Mr ALEX GREIG
Produced by Mr SIMON VINCENT

What are my memories of A Renaissance Man, 12 years after the fact? It was the 18th Bacchanals show, the only Bacchanals show of 2008—in fact it would be almost two years before the next one—and in terms of the overall Bacchanals output it's probably not our most memorable production. Lest that sound like I'm saying it wasn't any good or I didn't like it, let me clarify that: I always strove that each new project we undertook would be bigger and better than the one before, and if it couldn't be bigger and better then it would at least be breaking new ground for us as a company. The Frogs—our first production! Othello—our first Shakespeare! our first indoor show!Wealth and Hellbeing—our first new New Zealand play! our first BATS show! The Jew of Malta, Titus Andronicus and Volpone in rep—bigger and better! Hamlet—bigger and better! Crave—our first contemporary UK play! our first main-bill BATS show! Twelfth Night—our first touring production! bigger and better! . . . and so on. You get the picture, right? It wasn't until our 11th production, Romeo and Juliet, that I felt like we'd made a 'business as usual' show where we hadn't outdone ourselves—a second tour of a second bare-bones Shakespeare to a series of small towns for the second summer running was only slightly 'bigger and better!' than the tour of a bare-bones Shakespeare to a series of small towns the summer before. Immediately before A Renaissance Man we had embarked on the crazy venture of a $95,000 co-production of King Lear in 2007 with a properly-paid cast from all over New Zealand performing the most impossible Shakespeare play in two different cities. I imagine that at the time, I was thinking "Next time, let's try to do the complete opposite to King Lear in terms of size and scale!" but now, in 2020, looking back on The Bacchanals' body of work, A Renaissance Man looks unambitious: doing a new New Zealand play wasn't new for us; doing a main-bill show at BATS wasn't new for us; and doing a show that only required a cast of 6 was hardly on par with our usual large-cast productions (in our whole history only Wealth and Hellbeing and Crave beat it for smallest cast size). Again, lest that sound like I'm saying it wasn't any good or that I didn't like it, let me clarify: what Simon and I were trying to do with this show wasn't about 'bigger and better!' or 'breaking new ground!'; we were trying to make a viable piece of commercial, professional theatre (albeit as a co-operative show at BATS). We were trying to make a show about subject matter we were both interested in, but in a way whereby it could be picked up or programmed by any of the country's professional theatres and fit within their parameters. We weren't trying to make another King Lear or Hamlet; we were trying to make something that would stand up alongside all the 4-6 actor plays we'd been working on at Circa and the Fortune and Centrepoint. I know that it was Simon's idea rather than mine that A Renaissance Man be presented as a Bacchanals production and I think his reasoning was that, from a producer's viewpoint, there was a ready-made audience for the play in The Bacchanals' mailing list (it was a play set in Elizabethan England but intended to be rock n' roll rather than men-in-tights) and putting it out under that label would make much more sense than trying to generate an audience for it from scratch.

While this wasn't the first time The Bacchanals had done a new New Zealand play, A Renaissance Man was the first time we worked on a brand new script—Wealth and Hellbeing and Hate Crimes were both premieres, but premieres of plays that existed outside of The Bacchanals and that I chose to do for the company. A Renaissance Man, on the other hand, was developed over several years with me always in the frame to direct it. It had begun life as Simon's solo piece about John Donne when he was at Toi Whakaari between 1998-2000 and he'd always had the idea of developing it into a larger work. It is a fairly standard industry cliché now and for a good decade BATS Theatre was choked with season after season of recent Toi Whakaari grads turning their lean 15-minute pieces into 60-minute long multiple character solo shows, all hoping to be the next Jacob Rajan. But Simon was more interested in writing an actual play than a vehicle for himself and started work on the earliest drafts when we were in Christchurch for a month in 2004 while Taki Rua's The Untold Tales of Maui was playing at the Court—Simon and I were both big advocates of using your daytimes productively once a show was up and running in the evening and we spent long hours at the big table in our apartment, him writing and researching while I prepped The Bacchanals' 2005 touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Simon did another long stint out of town in 2005, working at Centrepoint, and at the end of that stint had the first draft of his John Donne play. I can't remember what that first draft was called but know that the play was Fatal Choice for a long time—not until after the Playmarket workshop did it become A Renaissance Man.

The first draft held together more as a collection of duologues than it did a play. It was essentially an extension of Simon's monologue, this time a full bio-play of John Donne with his sonnets as the anchor and other characters included—his wife Anne, Sir Philip Sidney, and the core plot being Donne's internal struggle reconciling his secret Catholic faith with Protestant England. I don't remember if Stella or Edmund Campion were originally in it but I know the main virtue of that massive first draft was that it germinated everything that would come out in the next two. The second draft, a year later, was almost a completely different play: Simon opted to be bound less by historical fact and go more for a thriller-comedy centred around the Gunpowder Plot. Stella as both Donne's lover and Edmund Campion-in-disguise was now a major feature of the play; Sir Philip Sidney remained more or less the same; King James with broad Scots accent was at the centre of the play's comedy, and there was a cross-dressing comic subplot with Anne Donne disguised as a boy fending off James' lecherous advances. This was the version we workshopped at Playmarket at some point in 2006 or 2007. The third draft was again a very different play—gone was King James (although a lot of his bluster and comedy got transferred into the Earl of Essex) and the Gunpowder Plot; now it was much more centred on Donne's attempts to gain patronage and recognition for his poems, while working as a secret Catholic agent alongside Edmund Campion, who he doesn't realise (because of the giant dark robes and the plague mask) is actually his secret lover Stella, wife of Essex. Simon had written in lengthy action sequences—he wanted it to be for John Donne what Shakespeare In Love was for Shakespeare, if John Donne was the protagonist of The Princess Bride, and my take on the play's politics was drawn largely from the film adaptation of V For Vendetta. Act One established Donne as a poet, spiritualist and libertine, enjoying various sexual dalliances and joining Essex on a voyage to defeat the Spaniards, working with Campion to try and free his imprisoned brother, and wooing and falling in love with Stella while forced to marry Anne. The climax of Act Two now centred around Essex' failed rebellion of 1601 and the revelation, mid-sword fight, that Campion and Stella were the same person, and then Act Three featured Donne being imprisoned and tortured by Philip Sidney while Campion/Stella carried out a Blackadder-esque assassination plot on the Queen that involved a cinder block on a pulley crashing into the throne.

Simon had understandably written John Donne for himself, but there was never any question of him playing it—it wasn't going to help his development as a writer to be trapped in his own script as the lead actor. Phil Peleton was cast as Donne and he had the right balance of passion, intellect, physicality and comedy, although I know he struggled feeling like he was in a different play to everyone else—Donne was grounded in reality whereas the supporting characters of Essex, Sidney and Anne were comedic and became even more ridiculous the more everyone re-watched Blackadder and The Princess Bride, and the Stella/Campion double had to be broad in order to try to hide the twist as long as possible. Phil felt at times very much like he was the boring straight man anchoring the play while everyone else got to be silly, but his performance was relentless and focused and he did so much to keep the narrative on track. Allan Henry, protegee of the legendary Tony Wolf who'd choreographed every fight scene in just about every piece of theatre made in/around Wellington for at least the entirety of the 1990s, would play Sir Philip Sidney and do all of the play's fight sequences. From his first Wellington appearance in This Lime Tree Bower alongside Simon in 2004, Gavin Rutherford had become a regular fixture at Circa Theatre and brought his natural ebullience—and willingness to grow a ludicrous moustache and look silly in it—to Essex. Rachel More had directed that production of This Lime Tree Bower and had been Simon's flatmate while she was in the first intake of the MTA in directing at Toi Whakaari—Simon had starred in her acclaimed graduation production of Mamet's Speed the Plow. Like me, Rachel was primarily a director but also a jack-of-all-theatrical-trades and, like me, someone who'd started out wanting to be an actor and could still flex those muscles when needed, able to fill in at the eleventh hour when actors in her own shows went down. With historical hindsight I imagine Rachel probably felt slighted that Simon hadn't asked her to direct his play given their long friendship and working relationship, but she still wanted to be involved, especially knowing Phil, Gavin and Allan were in the show, and had said to me "I'd love the chance to wear a corset and have cool swordfights!" It is a very hard thing for a director to take direction from another director, and Rachel and I knew from the outset that this would be an interesting experiment for us both—and the nature of the Stella/Campion double made it slightly more complex than just wearing a corset and having cool swordfights. In heavy robes and plague mask as Campion, Rachel had to spend much of the first two acts trying to pass as a man and we put a lot of effort into maintaining the surprise, including having a decoy Campion in some scenes (the robe and mask were a benefit), totally blinding ourselves to the fact that come opening night, from Campion's first line in the play, everyone would know just by the voice that it was Rachel! That decoy version of Campion was played by Alex, brought on board to play Henry Donne, added to the play quite late in the day when Simon realised actually seeing John and Henry together raised the dramatic stakes in a way that keeping Henry offstage didn't. And Anne Donne was played by Erin in what turned out, aside from a workshop weekend in 2009, to be the last time we worked together, which I'm still hugely sad about (Anne was a comparatively minor and unchallenging role for Erin measured against Helena, Marlene in Hate Crimes, Isabella, Betsie Verwoerd, Ophelia, Nicola in Hitchcock Blonde, Cordelia and Lear's Fool, and all the other work we'd done together). We had been almost inseparable as collaborators and friends for the last four years—I don't know how any of Erin's boyfriends felt through that period, but I know my partner found the amount of time we spent together excessive and she certainly raised an eyebrow when Erin once sent me a late night "I'm having an emotional crisis" text and I dropped everything to go and find her—and it's much easier for me to believe that our friendship and working relationship (they're usually one and the same for me) had probably run its course, rather than admit that my inability to separate friendships and working relationships makes me at times a really difficult, irrational and jealous friend: I'll misinterpret an actor-director disagreement as "my friend thinks I'm an idiot" instead of "two working professionals have different opinions" and take a tired actor not one hundred percent focused on that day's rehearsal as a personal betrayal. In the case of Erin, I'd spent four years telling everyone she was the greatest actor in the world and they should all hire her, and now I was resentful that everyone had finally caught on and was doing just that—I felt like she'd abandoned me for cooler, newer friends. I wanted to matter as much to her as she did to me, but my method of dealing with it was to sulk and freeze her out, entirely to my loss. A lot of the work I made in the next few years felt all the emptier without Erin in it or in the audience.

The rehearsal process was imbalanced at times and I struggled to control the room, feeling often like I was the only person not part of the cool in-crowd—it was because of Simon rather than me that everyone was working on the show, and because Rachel, Allan, Gavin and Phil all had working histories together they all fell into natural banter and patter and I was the annoying nerd trying to make them do some work. Trying to rehearse a play through December was not ideal either—everyone who wasn't in the Christmas show at BATS was in the Christmas show at Circa so in the limited hours each day we could get together, we were constantly battling people arriving late, needing to leave early, being hungover or ill, or just generally transfixed by Christmas mania. When we broke for Christmas we hadn't actually run or even finished the play, and would be reconvening on January 3 with seven days 'til opening night. Different directors have different strengths—some can plan their rehearsal process brilliantly, others excel at technical elements or integrating design in the room; me, I'm at my best when the clock has run out and there's no way you can possibly get the show ready in the time you have left. There's something about that crunch point that enables me to be incredibly clear and calm and decisive and concise, and I can somehow come up with the one perfect note that unlocks the whole play. And that's what I think happened through those last 6 days—the show quickly turned from a mess into something unified and coherent. It always helps to be in the space—we had exclusive use of BATS that week and it was the first time in the history of the building that the theatre had air-conditioning, which made the long days easier. And it helped that we were all working to serve Simon, who was also producing the show. The great Jen Lal lit the show ("this way I can now say I've designed lights for every company in the country!" she said, and it was probably true) and my partner Karin stage-managed. The energy in the room by the time we reached the dress rehearsal was great and I remember one day close to opening saying to Alex: "Do you know what? I'm loving this energy. I want to tour again!" and Alex saying, "Yeah, I knew after last night that's what you were gonna say today!" (It didn't happen. But interesting to note that, three years after I thought The Bacchanals as a company were done, I was suddenly revitalised enough to be half-arsedly planning a summer 2009 tour my diaries tell me would have been of Much Ado About Nothing or The Merchant of Venice.)

We painted BATS maroon and gold, to try and make things look more Elizabethan/Jacobean, and we built a mezzanine level in the space so that there could be fighting on the balcony. Whereas all of The Bacchanals' Shakespeares had been in modern, or at least emblematic dress, A Renaissance Man was the first time we'd done period costumes, albeit with deliberate anachronism (Allan in Elizabethan doublet & hose and a pair of aviators was exactly the rock n' roll aesthetic I wanted for the show). The production's biggest expense, however, was the watermelon rig plus the nightly watermelon: for the sequence at the end in which Campion/Stella tried to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, a dressmaker's mannequin representing the queen was placed on the throne as Campion tested the trap: a concrete cinder block on a pulley hoisted above the throne, which would crash down once the rope was cut. In the set-up Campion would measure that the rope was at the right height by putting a watermelon atop the mannequin to substitute for the queen's head, and then during the final duel between Donne and Campion, the rope would get cut, the cinder block would come swinging down early, and smash the watermelon. It was hazardous and inconsistent (there were nights where the block missed the watermelon completely, nights where the block only partially destroyed the watermelon, and nights where the watermelon splatter somehow covered the entire stage and audience) but the thrill each night of seeing a giant cinder block precariously dangling over the stage for the last ten minutes of the play gave that final scene a ridiculous and real sense of danger that I absolutely loved, because the audience knew once that block had been pulleyed up there, the theatrical law of Chekhov's Gun said it was going to come down before the play was over.

I also remember the sea battle against the Spanish in Act One, in which Phil and Gavin stood on a table representing a ship fighting off Allan, who played all the Spanish soldiers—once thrown off the table back into the sea, Allan would swim around to the other side and leap back up as another Spaniard and so on. There was a similar device during the Essex rebellion in Act II—Gavin on the mezzanine level fighting the hordes of soldiers pouring through the doors at him, in reality just Alex and Karin running back and forth upstairs backstage between the two doors that led to the mezzanine. And as mentioned earlier, I loved the sleight of hand in the show's biggest hero fight when Allan fought Rachel as Campion offstage, and was then fought back on by the much more proficient Alex doubling for Rachel in an identical costume/mask. The soundtrack was full of David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, to balance out the more period-apt Emma Kirkby and Paul O'Dette stuff. I remember former house technician Dimi, who'd emigrated to Canada in 2004, being in the audience on a trip home and turning to me, during the blackout at the end of Act II, just after 6 actors and a stage manager had played out the whole Essex rebellion and its cast of thousands with the 'Moby Dick' drum solo from Led Zeppelin II playing, and saying: "I'm at BATS watching The Bacchanals—I'm home!" I also remember reading John Stubbs' absolutely brilliant biography Donne: The Reformed Soul and despairing that its author was two years younger than me and had already published a book on a major Early Modern figure. "Yes," said Simon of the achievement, "but he probably hasn't directed as many plays as you have." True.

A note on the poster: this was the very first of my kinda pop-artsy collage posters. I know some people find them full-on and insane but the A Renaissance Man poster set a basic template that I've come back to numerous times since. I'd get better at just about every element of it (the title font, from The Simpsons' 'Radioactive Man', is very crude) but as a basic composition I love it. There'd been hidden messages on a few posters before this one, but this was the first one to feature a solid line of them along the bottom and it's been the same on every Bacchanals poster since—plus a few more I've designed for other shows, both my own and other people's. In later years Phantom would know just from the general layout "Oh, it's the guys who do the hidden messages!" when the posters were delivered for distribution.

There would be three years between A Renaissance Man in January 2008 and No Taste Forever! in January 2011, during which time there would only be one other Bacchanals-related project. I'm sure in the next two commentaries I'll go into detail about the reason for such big gaps but I'm sure the 'business as usual' aspects I've talked about—the feeling that however good A Renaissance Man was is and of itself, it wasn't the company being big and bold and breaking new ground—were a big part of me being reluctant to do a Bacchanals show for the sake of doing a Bacchanals show, otherwise I would have just slapped the label on my 2009 Hedda Gabler. Just saying, "Well, it's directed by me, is about something historical, and has some combination of at least Alex and Erin in it" wasn't a good enough reason. After King Lear I felt like maybe I'd run out of things to say as The Bacchanals and I was certainly feeling as a director that not very much was challenging me or making best use of me—much of my 2008 work was gun-for-hire, small cast shows for BATS-sized spaces (often BATS) and the Fortune's Jane Eyre was my one 'big' event show that year. In the three years between A Renaissance Man (the penultimate show of The Bacchanals' 'Wilderness Years') and No Taste Forever! (the first show of our self-professed 'Golden Age'), I would reassess and change my whole life. I can't imagine today being the David who made those 2008 shows, but I needed to have been through being him to make the work of 2011 onwards. God, writing these next few commentaries is going to be depressing! - David, June 2020

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