...i'll find a day to massacre them all...
the jew of malta
volpone the fox
Wednesday 8 August - Saturday 1 September, 2001
Third Floor, Wakefield Markets, Wellington
More commonly known as just The Trilogy, this mammoth feat saw 14 actors playing 70 roles in 3 different Renaissance plays. The plays were performed individually on weeknights and then all together in one nine-hour long performance beginning at 3pm each Saturday and ending nigh on midnight. Audience members could see individual performances or endure the same mammoth journey as the actors on the Saturday 'trilogy day'.
Alex Greig, Andrea Molloy, Carey Smith, David Lawrence, David Prendergast, Erica Lowe, Eve Middleton, Heather O'Carroll, James Stewart, Jocelyn Christian, John Porter, Kate Soper, Mark Cleary, Tina Helm
Production Manager Eve Middleton; Publicist Hannah Deans; Posters designed by Judith Wayers; Directed by David Lawrence
If there's one event that The Bacchanals will always be remembered for, it's the Trilogy. Even people who've never been to a Bacchanals show know about the trilogy and invariably when I'm introduced to theatre folk by other theatre folk it's always an introduction that goes along the lines of, "This is David, he runs a company who once did this crazy season where they did three Renaissance plays in a row..."
The origins of the trilogy are complex and difficult to coherently explain. First: I have always wanted to do Titus Andronicus. I first read the play in 1994 and was astounded that I'd never been told about this play beforehand. In the years since then time and again I've watched jaws drop when I describe the plot of this play to students (it's always been a good "get their attention back" classroom ploy - tell them about "Titus Andronicus"!). I planned a lavish production of the play, requiring a cast of 80, huge battle scenes and ending with Aaron buried up to his neck in the ground in the Botanic Gardens and applied to do it as a Summer Shakespeare when I was 19. I didn't get the job but still had the 20-page treatment with drawings, diagrams, multiple ideas for staging the limb-severing and so on. In 1996 my old high school did a production which, to my knowledge, is only the second time the play had ever been performed in New Zealand. I was very impressed at how well a lot of the violence played (especially in terms of stage trickery like the onstage hand-chopping), although the audience were in unnecessary hysterics when a stagehand came on to mop the floor after Chiron and Demetrius' throats had been slit. The play was always high up on my list of ones I wanted to do, but one I knew would always have a very limited audience appeal. When Julie Taymor's film Titus, based largely on her New York stage production, was released in NZ in 2000, I was disappointed - not by the film, which in many cases is one of the best screen Shakespeares, but by the knowledge that surely the release of a film version would kill any market for a stage production dead, in the same way that after the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing or Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet those two plays became unstageable, the films were so firmly etched into the public consciousness. But to my surprise - at least as far as The Bacchanals were concerned - the film made everyone eager to do a production of the play.
Jonson's Volpone is more frequently revived in the UK than a good third of the Shakespearean canon. When studying the play on a post-grad course in 2000, our small honours class had great fun debating just how you would stage sections of it - chiefly the incredibly long scene in which Volpone disguises himself as a mountebank, which goes on for pages and pages in prose. And also the role of what the class referred to as the 'zanies', 'exquisites' or (for the more un-PC of us) 'freaks' in a stage performance would be. We had a great evening where, instead of watching a film version of the play in question (which was what we were doing with the other Renaissance plays on the course), we combined a pot-luck dinner with a read-through of the entire play. As with seeing Titus staged, I was impressed by how swift and entertaining Volpone sounded when read aloud, having experienced what a dense read it can be. Somewhere in the proceedings, I found myself saying "I am going to stage an uncut Volpone, leaving the songs, the freaks and the mountebank scene intact!" The programme notes for Othello declared that Volpone would be somewhere on the future agenda.
I had a Renaissance play on the agenda for 2001 but couldn't decide which one. I loved Volpone, but it felt disloyal to my real passion to not do a Shakespeare. Jean Betts had suggested post-Othello that rehearsed readings of some of these obscure but wonderful texts might be the way to go, especially with plays we knew would have too limited an audience appeal to sustain a season of any length. And then I read reviews of Michael Boyd's productions of the three parts of Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the midst of a season in which the RSC eventually staged the entire run of History plays, Boyd's productions of the Henry VI trilogy enjoyed a run where, on Saturdays, they could be viewed in one nine-hour long marathon. I was hugely excited by Michael Billington's review in the Guardian, where he made a few observations I found very attractive about such a project. The first was that they were undertaking such a feat was far more important than how well it was done - that any insufficiencies in certain moments could be excused by the sheer effort of the project. And the second, more important one to my mind, was that the audience and actors shared the same journey together - they got fatigued at the same points, and got their second wind at the same points. In short, it sounded like exactly the kind of show I wanted to do.
So on January 21st 2001, at the first rehearsal for Wealth and Hellbeing, I suggested an idea to Carey, James and Tina: a season of three Renaissance plays - each one a play that might be popular but in NZ would be unable to sustain a full-length season on its own - performed by the same company of 15 actors, with the plays rotated on weeknights and then performed all on the same day each weekend. The idea was that each actor would have a lead role in one play, a supporting role in another, and then in the final play would play the walk-ons and spear carriers. Audience could see the plays individually but would be encouraged, for a reduced ticket price, to see the 'marathon'. To enhance the joint journey, the actors and audience would share meals and refreshments together between the plays. Far from thinking the idea was insane, Carey, James and Tina thought it sounded great, beginning a policy that has always been very important for The Bacchanals - thinking straight away about all the good reasons for doing something before considering potential obstacles. We all agreed that it would be the ultimate challenge for actors - rehearsing and performing three plays in repertory (something actors in NZ never get to do). For me it provided the added challenge of finding a uniform style between the three to make the plays easy to rehearse but also making them different enough to make seeing all three plays worthwhile. Titus Andronicus and Volpone were done deals and for the third play it made sense to have something that tied into their moods somewhat. It was a toss-up between a Marlowe or a Webster but I quickly decided that, in light of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi having already had professional productions in NZ, Marlowe was more deserving of a lucky break, and The Jew of Malta tied nicely into the two already-chosen plays in terms of villainy, deceit and treachery.
Over the next few months I sounded numerous people out about the idea and not a single person I spoke to thought the idea was a bad one. It was exhilarating seeing the excitement everyone had at the idea (even though, ultimately, a very tiny percentage of the people who were enthused at the sound of the project actually came to see it) and during the run of Wealth and Hellbeing we started making definite plans. Laurie Atkinson's review of Wealth actually devoted its final paragraph to talking about the planned trilogy. We weren't sure whether he thought we were being serious or not. I had drawn up casting charts and the three plays were very complimentary in terms of minimum cast sizes - all three could be done comfortably with 15 actors and everyone would have at least one decent opportunity to shine. Ultimately as the cast was assembled and shuffled about, the charts kept changing. Rather than firmly cast things, I wanted the performers to volunteer themselves for parts - but as Titus was the only play most people had read, their decisions were made entirely on that play. Eve took the plunge and said, "If it's first in, first served, then can I have Tamora?" Carey and James wanted to play the rapists Chiron and Demetrius. Charlie, who had also been in the Wellington High School Titus Andronicus (and had played Demetrius) wanted a go at Saturninus. Taika liked the sound of Mosca in Volpone but I was keener on seeing him play Titus or Aaron in Titus Andronicus, neither of which matched up role-wise with Mosca. Pretty soon it became apparent that, if we'd be working with a lot of first-time Bacchanals, it would be problematic to try and be democratic and fair on all, especially as it meant that some of the charts I'd worked out meant that actors like Carey and James would have their 'lead' roles as Chiron and Demetrius and then be wasted on insignificant roles in the other two plays. They were capable of much more and I wanted them both to play a title role. Thus it made sense to put my trust in actors I knew wouldn't let me down, so structured a new chart in which people I had absolute confidence in carried the shows - The Jew of Malta would be led by Carey as Barabas, Taika as Ithamore and Tina as Abigail; Titus Andronicus would have Taika as Titus, Eve as Tamora and Charlie as Saturninus; and Volpone would feature James and Tina, whose comic double-acts in Wealth had been hysterical, as Volpone and Mosca.
The charts underwent further revision before the shows opened, as did the casting. Mark, Alex and John signed on, while Michael and Judith had to pass due to other commitments. I had been very impressed by Erica Lowe's performance as Pisanio in the Summer Shakespeare production of Cymbeline - she was hands down the best actor in the show by a long way - and she was eager to be involved. Ultimately some of the casting choices for the trilogy were not ideal ones, but I was determined to have a company who were all passionate about the project, and this meant going with people whose abilities and temperaments were not always compatible. Adding to that was the fact that, as organized as I tried to be, I had never rehearsed three plays at the same time before and, even with three months of every Sunday and random weekday rehearsals scheduled, if we were lucky we'd get to work on each individual scene twice before opening night. The Sundays involved the full cast, and each Sunday we focused on a different play - which meant each play got three Sundays, followed by a Sunday on which we ran all three plays. We rehearsed at Jean Betts' place and most of those Sundays were, for me, torturous and miserable. Dealing with that many actors and being the go-between for everybody's problems with everybody else meant I spent the whole time just trying to get to the end of the day in one piece. Furthermore, there was always at least one absentee, be it because of other work, hangovers, illness, whatever, so I always seemed to be on the floor reading in for absent actors. Two major obstacles came up in the weeks before opening night. The first was that Charlie, who had attended few rehearsals anyway, got Creative New Zealand funding to make the short film he'd been planning for years. The dates for the shoot conflicted with the scheduled dates for the Trilogy (and John, Alex and Erica had roles in the film also), and it became swiftly apparent, with six weeks until opening night, that Charlie couldn't do both. Another actor offered himself in Charlie's place and that problem was supposedly solved. The more troublesome problem was Taika's commitment - he had been unsure from the outset and committed to other work at the start of the rehearsal schedule. Having gone through a similar wooing process doing Othello, and working in a similar manner involving much discussion and meetings but little actual rehearsal, I assumed he would make up his mind in our favour - after all, he loved Titus as a play and a role (the idea of Chiron and Demetrius wearing school uniforms was his). However the deadline for him making a firm decision had been and gone but I was so hopeful of swaying him that I did nothing to solve the problem until the rest of the company pointed out that, with five weeks remaining before the show opened, the chances of him learning one role, let alone three, were nigh on impossible. Having played Titus through all the rehearsals, I already knew the entire role, but the cast were extremely unhappy at the thought of me playing the part in addition to trying to direct the plays, so John Porter, who'd been playing Bassianus, volunteered to undertake a crash-course in learning large roles (all of John's parts were moderate), with Alex stepping up to Bassianus (Alex was largely mute in Titus). Carey realized he could double Peregrine and Bonario in Volpone without us needing an extra actor, and it was conceded that I would appear in The Jew of Malta as Ithamore - Erica in particular was concerned at having to re-rehearse the scenes with another actor, having become used to the scenes with me in them. Problems were apparently solved but then, two weeks later, Charlie's replacement bailed...fearful of what would happen to morale, I moved swiftly to solve the next crisis but every actor I phoned said, "You want me to learn three verse roles in three weeks?" The easiest solution, I realized with a sinking heart, was that I would have to appear in all three plays...Ithamore was fun and easy, but Saturninus and the dreaded Sir Politic Would-Be? I realized it would make directorial duties easier to promote Alex (again!) and relieve him of Bassianus in Titus (a part I now knew very well, having rehearsed two different actors in it). Sir Politic was agony to learn and rehearse but at the eleventh hour I had some breakthroughs and, although I was on the book right up until the dress rehearsal, he ended up being great fun.
Finding a venue for the shows was not without its difficulties either. The wealth of spaces that had seemed like they might be ideal when we first planned the project were suddenly all unavailable. We needed a space big enough to seat about 40 people and to allow us to build an upper level and a trapdoor. The physical space we needed for the plays would be equivalent to a Renaissance playhouse and the plays were staged bearing those simple requirements in mind. I was doing research in my post-grad work at university into the entrance and exit systems employed in Renaissance playhouses and used The Jew of Malta to test a few practical theories, the most important being the use of an in-door and an out-door - the theory being that in companies with such a vast repertory of plays, they must have had some very simple staging rules to cope with the practicalities of their working lives. If you're performing a play only once a month and in repertory with 20 other shows, you have more important things to focus on than what door you're coming through. So the system we employed for The Jew of Malta (and later Twelfth Night in 2003) was that, unless explicitly stated otherwise in stage directions, any character entering the stage did so through the stage left door, regardless of the logic of the plot, and any character leaving the stage did so through the stage right door. This meant the stage "traffic" was very easy to manage. The Jew of Malta is a play with little spatial or temporal logic, so it wasn't much more of a suspension of disbelief to allow such an un-realism-based entrance/exit system.
We looked at performing in the hall at 225 Aro Street, at the Red Brick Hall on Cambridge Terrace, in the basement of the Embassy cinema, at Thistle Hall on Cuba Street, in an old building owned by the railway station, at the Drama Christi studio and a thousand other halls and rooms around Wellington. In virtually every case the venue fell through on the eve of it seeming like a sure thing. This, I am sure, added to the doubt and reluctance that had crept into certain corners of the cast, no matter how firmly the likes of Eve and Carey assured them that the only attitude required to make these shows happen was a positive one. One of the students in a series of evening classes on Shakespeare I was teaching at the Wellington Performing Arts Centre, Kate Soper, had joined the show at a fairly late stage. I had been struck by her enthusiasm and energy in the classes and in the space of two evenings we had already become great friends and I knew her overwhelmingly enthusiastic attitude would work wonders in the generally stressful rehearsal room. She volunteered a vacant shop her mother had in the Left Bank off Cuba Mall as a possible venue. The shop had an upper level but was ultimately far too small, however keen I was on it. If we'd gone with it, we would have only been able to fit in 10 audience members a night - although in retrospect this would not have been any great handicap - but too much of the staging would have had to have been rethought. At the same time, Hannah Deans, Carey and Eve's flatmate at Boston Terrace, negotiated a deal for us to perform on the third floor of the old Wakefield Markets building. The empty space was the perfect size and there was no problem with us building an upper level or a trap door. We secured the venue three weeks before the first performance.
With two weeks to go I had already realized that there just would not be enough time and my energy went into making sure the plays happened, as opposed to making them as strong and fast and powerful as I wanted them to be. The Jew of Malta was driven by the strong ensemble feel - virtually everyone bar Carey had multiple roles throughout the play and it was going like the clappers. Titus Andronicus was the play that every cast member was behind, regardless of their role, and the play that from day one had looked like it had, regardless of all the casting nightmares, the makings of something special. John got to grips with the role in an incredibly short space of time and, not having the time to analyse and ponder, was acting entirely on instinct. Volpone was the most rehearsed of the three plays but this was ultimately to its disadvantage - because everyone had seen so much of it in rehearsal, it never had that feeling comedy needs of the whole cast waiting in the wings watching every night, feeding off the energy of the other performers and the audience. I found myself that, once the show was up and running, I just could not bear to sit through some of those long sequences again once I was offstage. The week before production week we ran each play one final time in Kate's mother's empty shop and Volpone really peaked that week - the performance was intensified by the intimate size of the shop and James and Tina's energies as Volpone and Mosca were off the planet. What is normally over four hours long uncut ran at two hours and fifty minutes that night - twenty minutes shorter than it normally was in actual performance in the weeks to come (that I was playing Voltore that night due to Heather being ill probably contributed to the speed also!) The Jew of Malta was running, incredibly, at a mere hour and three quarters, and we decided to play it without an interval. Titus was the play I'd allowed the most liberties in terms of dramatic pauses and changes in tempo, and while on paper Titus is only 100 lines longer than The Jew of Malta, the performance came in at the same length as our Othello.
Time was running out but, over the course of a week, we packed into the space and managed to run all three plays on the Saturday before we would perform the first trilogy. Trying to start on time was impossible, and allowing decent dinner breaks and so on meant that the run of Volpone didn't begin 'til nearly midnight. The lateness of confirming a venue meant a delay with the posters, so our publicity was virtually non-existent. We had small audiences for the dress rehearsals of Titus and Volpone and it was an encouraging sign when one of my evening class students had to leave partway through the first half of Titus - we staged Marcus' discovery of the raped and mutilated Lavinia almost entirely in the dark and decided not to hold back on the blood. I was amazed that the student left before we'd even reached the onstage hand-chopping moment. She came back at the interval but upon having the rest of the plot described decided she'd give the second half a miss. This left me partially pleased - after all, the play has a reputation in modern productions to incite fainting and vomiting, so I felt that I'd be letting the side down if people didn't walk out of my Titus Andronicus.
The first performances of each individual play were to about ten people each and the bookings were dire. We'd played Othello to tiny houses, but as the first trilogy day loomed with virtually no bookings, things were not looking good. We'd had to return our borrowed seating to Zeal for the weekend and replaced it all with sofas, so at least whatever audience there might be would be comfortable. On the first trilogy day we played The Jew of Malta to four people - my mum, Kate's mum, Timothy O'Brien (the Dominion's theatre critic) and one of my ex-wife's SPCA colleagues. Titus was played to three people - Tim and the two mothers - and Kate's mum was unable to stay for Volpone. Tim was exhausted and decided he'd come back and see Volpone during the week, meaning only my mum was left for the last play. "Will you still do it?" Tim asked, and we replied that it was really up to James and Tina as they had to carry the show. Titus had finished with only fifteen minutes to go before Volpone was scheduled to kick off, so there was still a slim chance we might get some door sales for the final play - but in all honestly it looked pretty bloody unlikely. My mother was happy to stay but quite prepared for the eventuality that we would flag Volpone that night and all go to bed instead. Five minutes after he'd left, Tim O'Brien was back. "If you're mad enough to perform," he said, "then I'm mad enough to stay." Most of the cast had already decided we weren't performing the final play, but I felt a wave of craziness wash over me and looked at Tina. "I'm doing it," she said adamantly, in spite of resistance from the others, which meant James had the deciding vote. I went into the communal dressing room to see how James felt about the idea of performing for just my mother and a reviewer; James was already in costume and setting his props. I have never had a night quite as insane as that in my life. Tim's review in the Dominion was fantastic, and we were flabbergasted when he paid to see Volpone again the following week.
The social life of the group during the trilogy cannot go unmentioned. We became regulars at the Courtenay Arms, which suited us because of its quietness and cosiness (and the amount of posters they allowed James to put up) and were there every night of the week during the run, except for Saturdays. After all four of the Saturday trilogies we were still up when the sun rose the next day - the logic being, I guess, that if you need a few hours' wind-down time after a performance, then three plays means three times the wind-down time.
Audiences over the month-long season were erratic and unusual. The Jew of Malta started out slowly but was getting good crowds towards the end, whereas Volpone had a good start but dwindled as the run went on. Titus was consistently popular and the only play of the three to play to full houses. The trilogy days were never as popular as we'd hoped they'd be and often proved too long to endure - often people who'd paid to do the all-dayer would leave after Titus and come to Volpone the next week. But the people who lasted the distance usually always had that same mix of exhaustion and elation as we had when they finally emerged from Volpone close to midnight.
The Jew of Malta was the least popular critically but was my favourite of the three shows. I loved the rapid-fire pace and the hilarity that accompanied so much of the villainy in the play. Marlowe just doesn't seem to know when to stop and each evil deed is followed by another of even more extremity. The middle two acts of the play, with the poisoning of the nuns and the murder of Friar Barnadine, and then the gulling of Ithamore by Bellamira and Pilia-Borza, were great fun for Carey and I. Carey's performance as Barabas was exactly the right mixture of moral superiority and outrageous hypocrisy and comedy. He always got huge laughs on his explosion of "What? Abigail become a nun - AGAIN???" and I loved his playing of the end of Act One scene two when he publicly denounces his daughter while secretly giving her instructions to find all their hidden treasure as soon as she's inside their old home, which has been repossessed by the state and turned into a nunnery. Mark made a meal of his role as Friar Barnadine, dragging me all over the stage during the scene where Ithamore and Barabas strangle him to death. Why he opted to play the priest with a Sean Connery accent (or at least, what Mark thinks is a Sean Connery accent) remains a mystery to this day.
My lasting memory of The Jew of Malta will always be the second to last performance - Carey had a haircut during the last week of the season and the shorter hair length meant that the two locks of hair he wore (as an Hassidic Jew) on the sides of his head caused him trouble all night, coming unattached every time he was about to come onstage for a scene. For the scene in the fourth act when Barabas, disguised as a French musician, visits Ithamore, Bellamira and Pilia-Borza, he had trouble with the locks of hair which meant when he came onstage, he hadn't noticed that the posies he wore in his beret (which are poisoned and soon cause the deaths of the other three characters onstage) had fallen out - so when Erica ordered Alex to "Bid the fiddler give me the posy in his hat there," all Carey could give Alex was the hat itself. While we sniggered, Alex and Carey tried to no avail to locate the missing posies, so instead of saying "How sweet, my Ithamore, the flowers smell!" Erica had to sniff Carey's hat, as did myself and then Alex, making no sense of Carey's aside, "The scent thereof was death - I poisoned it!" The knock-on effect was that, in the next scene, when Ithamore, Bellamira and Pilia-Borza all denounce Barabas before the state, Barabas' immortal line "I hope the poisoned flowers will work anon!" as everyone is dragged off to prison became "I hope the poisoned hat will work anon!" The entire cast collapsed into hysterics to the point where Andrea forgot to go on stage to announce that we were all dead a moment later, she was laughing so hard. In the final performance I amended Ithamore's line "That hat he wears Judas himself left under the elder-tree when he hung himself" to "That poisoned hat he wears..." partly as homage to the incident but also as my vengeance for another mishap ... but I'll detail that later on.
As I'd said, Titus was the play everyone was behind. At the very first rehearsal I just let it run on when I should have stopped to clarify things and, once we got into the second act, magical things occurred. Mark and Andrea never played the scene in which Marcus discovers Lavinia as well as they did at that first rehearsal. On the nights that Titus ran well, it was great. From the beginning of the second Act we dimmed the lights slowly until, by the Marcus/Lavinia scene, the stage was pitch black. I used to love sneaking into the back of the audience (often still caked in blood from my death as Bassianus) to see the looks on people's faces once the light came back on. With the action played so close to the audience, the detail of some of the violence was sometimes hard for the audience. At the first trilogy day, I looked at the three audience members (Tim O'Brien, my mum and Kate's mum) at one point during Act Three Scene One to see that all three of them were looking elsewhere rather than take in the spectacle in front of them. And over the eight performances I learnt so much about why certain things are there - for instance, the moment when Lavinia takes the severed hand in her mouth. We worked so hard to not get a laugh on that line only to realize that the audience is meant to laugh - it's the light at the end of the tunnel. After 15 minutes of emotional harrowing, Shakespeare's saying "Don't worry, it'll all be redeemed." We had a few unfortunate performances where people decided it was a comedy and each new atrocity was greeted with even more laughter, but generally we found that if you treat it seriously, then so do the audience. Act three Scene One was a powerful, moving scene from the outset and I often used to sit through it holding back tears in rehearsal. Tina as Lucius let the tears flow, and on opening night even Mark succumbed. We began the second half of the show in absolute silence - a rehearsal technique I'd used on Chekhov and also applied to Titus, it worked so well (letting the emotion overwhelm you before you speak) that we kept it in the finished production. Generally I would have liked another month to work on the second half - it's a much harder part of the play, especially as the first half has so much action, and we never really cracked a lot of it. But on the other hand, you know that something special is happening when you can't stand still on stage for fear of sticking to the floor - there was a LOT of blood in that show. On some nights people sitting in the front were splattered by the spray when Chiron and Demetrius' throats were slit.
Volpone ended up evolving into a relatively farcical style - we found early on that trying to treat it with any psychological realism was not going to work. The idea of finishing with a comedy was so that, after hours of tragedy, we'd just be able to have a big laugh. James and Tina never stopped working and, much as one reviewer who'd always fancied himself as Mosca hated Tina's performance, the two of them had me in hysterics the whole way through. The costuming on Volpone took on a bizarre life of its own. Mark decided he was playing Nano as an Irish football hooligan and, seeing as I'd already cast him as a dwarf, there seemed no reason to prevent him kicking a soccer ball around the stage. I don't remember why we allowed Bonario to ride a scooter but I'm sure it was supposed to be topical. Mosca's fluffy slippers were a result of many rehearsals at Tina's in which, as well as providing everyone with tea and coffee, she bounced around the house wearing animal slippers, and it seemed to change her whole physicality. Lady Politic Would-Be's costume was simply the most ghastly, loud thing we could find - and oddly enough, it fitted perfectly with the Coca Cola motif we had running through the play. The "oil" Volpone was selling as an elixir of life when disguised as a mountebank became a bottle of Coke, and elsewhere we kept slipping in Coke references and props. It took someone else to point out that Lady Would-Be's red and white costume was yet another Coke reference point.
The scene James and I had the greatest fears about, the mountebank scene, actually turned out to be one of the highlights of every show. I suppose it's that adage you often find; that these plays are written to be performed, not read - get it on stage and play it and suddenly what bewilders scholars and academics makes perfect sense. I was equally fascinated by how well the scene in which Sir Politic hides in a tortoise-shell and is beaten by merchants plays.
The last trilogy day was joyous and celebratory and very much the end of a very long journey. And because we had a big crowd of all-dayers, all the resonances I hoped would be in place were picked up on. During The Jew of Malta, Alex forgot to bring on a pen as Pilia-Borza, so when I demanded "pen and ink!" to demand extortion money from Barabas, he had no pen to give me. We fluffed about and I ended up writing the note in blood (left on the stage floor from Mathias and Lodowick's deaths) with a knife. As Alex left the stage I yelled "And bring a pen back with you!" to the audience's delight. They laughed too when Alex gave me a pen in the next scene and I made a point of holding it up to show the audience. Two hours later, as the Clown in Titus Andronicus, I got a very big laugh when Titus asked, "Give me pen and ink" in the arrows scene, and I gave the audience a wink as I brought a pen out of my coat for him - the people who'd been in the audience for the previous show got that it was a call-back to The Jew of Malta. Thinking quickly, I then engineered a gag in Volpone so that at the start of the second half of that play I had as many pens as I could find in my satchel. When Sir Politic looks for his diary to show Peregrine, I took pen after pen out of my bag while the audience laughed. Never one to keep a straight face, I ended up giggling and Carey and I had to stop the scene to laugh it all out. Upon resuming, my next line was "My papers are not with me!" and the audience, having seen all the pen jokes, thought that in setting up a silly gag for their benefit, I'd actually forgotten to set a genuine prop, so we all laughed some more.
With all three plays, there was never enough time and so many wonderful ideas fell by the wayside because we had neither the resources nor the energy to make them happen - but the point of the project was always that we were doing it, not how well we did it. And I'm still convinced there was value in doing it, even though I couldn't tell you exactly why. What was a valuable lesson was realizing exactly how a company dynamic had to work to get the best results, and there were many mistakes I was not going to repeat again as we moved into planning Hamlet. - David
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