From July 4, 2009
Last year, Francesca* and I went on a vacation to Ashland, Oregon to see some plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The best one that we saw was Bill Cain’s Equivocation. This is a review I wrote of it for a drama class I was taking at UBC at the time:
Equivocation imagines a world in which Shagespeare (Cain’s favourite of the many possible spellings of the name we usually write Shakespeare) is commissioned by King James’ prime minister to write a “true history” of the Gunpowder Plot. The play explores the nature of truth and the role of the theatre. All the actors in Equivocation play multiple characters, sometimes at the same time. It is a truly remarkable play, superlative in fact.
Shag (as he is called throughout) is asked at the beginning to write the play by Robert Cecil, the prime minister of the day. It becomes clear that Cecil is the driving political force in England. He claims responsibility for King James’ accession to the English throne after Elizabeth’s death, and clearly has political control over, and knowledge about, everything that goes on in England. Shag feels compelled to take the commission – nobody can refuse a request from Cecil – and takes it back to the King’s Men, his acting company. They argue about whether and how to do it. Shag struggles to write a play that makes sense and has trouble with some of the logical flaws of the story Cecil wants him to write. Where did the gunpowder come from? Were any of the gentlemen accused in the plot carpenters who were able to construct a tunnel under Parliament? Where did the dirt from the tunnel go to? Most importantly, how can he possibly write a drama without an end? (i.e. there is no climax, no explosion – only an arrest and executions). Shag manages to speak with some of the accused conspirators, and finds different versions of the event, which are presented on stage, often with wording that parallels previous versions.
Meanwhile, Shag has a strained relationship with his daughter Judith, who is the surviving twin of his son Hamnet, whose name is similar to one of Shakespeare’s great characters. Shag sees Judith as a reminder of his lost son, and has so much trouble dealing with his grief that he takes his anger out on her. He also uses her (she seems to constantly be doing laundry) and takes her for granted.
The second act substantially solves Shag’s problems. He figures out a way to write a play denouncing treasonous activities, while appropriately complicating matters, creating believable characters and a believable ending—the Scottish Play (Macbeth) is Shag’s answer to his commission. The King loves it (it has witches in it, an apparent obsession of James’), but Cecil hates it because it doesn’t contain the message that he had wanted. But there is nothing he can do to punish the King’s Men, because the King has given his blessing to them. The pen, the stage, and the truth, is mightier than Cecil and his backstabbing sword.
Shag’s relationship with Judith is solved upon his death at the end of the play. She sums up his last years, and final four plays, as she washes and dresses his body for burial: “They all have the same story—those last plays… A father throws away his daughter. And nothing will ever be right until he gets her back… The last plays are completely unbelievable… And I believed them… I never knew I had a story of my own—until he told it” (80-81). (Shakespeare’s last four plays were The Tempest, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and Henry VIII. Having read The Tempest and seen Henry VIII, I can accept Judith’s description that they portray complicated father-daughter relationships; I’m not sure about the others.)
In the play, there is a lot of discussion of the dangerous religious disagreements at the time, the complex nature of truth, and the meaning of theatre, family and friendship. I need to learn a lot more about the particular historical circumstances to comment on it’s historical accuracy, but the play itself beautifully captures a lot of the debates over the nature of theatre that I am familiar with. Shag and Richard Burbage (one of the Kings’ Men) have a beautiful argument about what theatre is supposed to do, near the end of Act One:
SHAG: …We stop our mouths. We do not shout UNTRUE to what we know to be false and if we do not, who will?… I had hoped to write a new soul into this country…
RICHARD: …What do we have to do with souls? We step out on stage and try to show them something—enormous, unimaginable—for good or ill. And if they catch a sight of themselves in us, we’ve done our job. We hold the mirror up. Nothing more. (34)
Shag’s argument seems to be close to what I understand of Stanislavsky’s Method, that actors have to create something profound and “real” when they act. They have to become the character. Richard seems to be arguing something more akin to what David Mamet argued in “True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor,” which I read earlier [in 2009]. “The actor is onstage to communicate the play to the audience,” writes Mamet. “That is the beginning and the end of his and her job. To do so the actor needs a strong voice, superb diction, a supple, well-proportioned body, and a rudimentary understanding of the play. The actor does not need to ‘become’ the character. The phrase, in fact, has no meaning” (9). Arguments like these, about what is true and untrue, and how to best represent truth on stage, permeate the play.
[At this point, my professor added this comment: “It is fascinating how often playwrights turn back to Shaky (in one way or another) to reflect on theatre, in a sense Shaky provides the necessary, and perhaps original ‘meta’ for ‘meta-theatre’? In my lecture I discussed how Shaky’s theatre represents the ‘end’ of a long era of ‘festive performance’ — and the beginnings of Modern theatre, with the necessary playwright: the authority of an author. But, as I stressed, the theatres in England were shut and banned for 40 years before the ‘metamorphisis’ was complete.”]
The staging of Equivocation was incredible, with the characters seamlessly slipping between different characters. The performance of Macbeth was particularly thrilling, as a single actor played MacDuff, Macbeth and King James, switching manically between each character with each line. The stage itself was very simple, with a large square playing surface backed by a curving wall and staircase. A brilliant lighting design created several different textures on the materials (mostly wood), allowing instantaneous shifts in location and character. A pyrotecnic effect leading up to the aborted attempt to blow up Parliament in the first act was appropriately flashy.
The beheading of Thomas Wintour at the end of Act One was my favourite beheading all week*—rather than the clearly fake, but very cool, silicone heads created for the actors in Macbeth to hold aloft on the tips of swords, Wintour’s body was simply wrapped in a black shroud and his head lit in a highly focused harsh greyish white light. This moment of heightened drama allowed the author to give “TOM’S HEAD” a line: “Thou liest.” That was the most true line in the play, I think: everything in a play is a lie, in that it is not part of “real life”; the question is, how true can the playwright make it? In this case, I think the play was a very true lie.
The only substantial problem I had with the play was that the relationship between Shag and Judith seemed to be artificial. It didn’t seem to be well integrated into the structure of the play. It seemed like the playwright thought he needed a way to embody Shag’s grief for his son, so implanted a character into the play to do it. He integrated her pretty well, but she didn’t seem dramatically necessary to the central conflict between Shag/Cecil and true/false.
Other than that, I think it’s a fantastic, important play. It toured to Seattle Rep in November/December 2009, and was performed in L.A. last fall and New York this past spring. A copy of the script is available at the OSF in house Tudor Guild Gift Shop. If you have the chance to see it or read it, do so.
*Not her real name.
*Along with Equivocation, we also saw Much Ado About Nothing, Henry VIII, Macbeth, and The Music Man. Only Macbeth featured a beheading. Thankfully, Henry VIII, Much Ado and The Music Man did not.