As regular readers will know, I’m currently writing a PhD thesis on the Shakespeare Apocrypha, and it’s therefore extremely exciting to be starting the year with a very rare performance of one of the apocryphal plays, A Yorkshire Tragedy.
The venue was the White Bear Theatre pub in London, a tiny black box space at the back of a pub with space for about thirty-forty audience members. A wood-chipping floor marked the stage, while a wooden framework filled the back wall, from which hung various location placards and pieces of costume. Eight crates were rearranged throughout to suggest furniture and doorways, while the cast themselves wore white shirts and breeches, augmented in cases by small costume signifiers (a cap for the Son, gown for the Master, waistcoat for the Husband etc.). Sparse and representative, at first sight the production suggested an economy of design entirely appropriate for such a stripped-back play.
An introduction by one of the cast to the play touched on some ‘facts’ about the piece, which I’ve discussed at greater length over on my apocrypha blog. More relevantly, the cast member then proceeded to explain the design: that the boxes would be used to signify furniture, that a 24 year old man would be playing a 4 year old boy, that placards hanging on a particular piece of wall would signify the scene’s location. Quite why we needed to have such basic staging conventions explained to us is beyond me: I’m unsure as to whether the company thought they were dealing with a particularly theatrically-illiterate audience, or whether they were attempting to achieve a particular metatheatrical effect, but it came across as reductive and – hopefully unintentionally – extremely patronising.
The economical design proved to be little but, as each scene was divided by an extended scene change, performed in half-light with intrusive incidental music as the cast broke out of character and moved boxes, placards and costume pieces into a new configuration. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but the fact that scenes in Yorkshire Tragedy are so short meant that there were occasions when the scene changes took longer than the scenes they preceded, particularly in the burst of action following the Husband’s first murder. This also acted to badly interrupt the pace and flow of action which really demanded to be played continuously. What the sets did achieve, however, was a sense of the domestic: the rustic wood, organised into small, compartmentalised playing spaces with fixed entrances and exits, acted to make the area claustrophobic and inescapable.
In the tiny auditorium, the presence of an audience could not be avoided. The Husband and Wife’s soliloquies were directed directly to us, particularly in the case of Charlotte Powell’s Wife, whose defence of and complaints against her husband became familiar and pleading. In taking the place of the Wife’s confidante, the audience were invited to judge her from an invested point of view: we sympathised, but there was also a dangerous blindness in her actions that only we – as the outsiders – could see. One of the play’s most shocking moments came, not in the murders, but in the Wife’s response to the Master’s “You have a boy at nurse; your joy’s in him” with “Dearer than all is my poor husbands’ life”, delivered with an unnerving lack of interest in her children, living or dead.
This lack of interest, coupled with the production’s refusal to present the bodies of the children in the final scene, focussed attention on the leading couple and their journey through disaster, repentance and forgiveness, from which the children were barred. In doing so, this became a story about love rather than family, with the children essentially objectified products of that love. The officers escorting the Husband to trial showed active disgust at the Wife’s forgiveness of the Husband, tutting and exchanging confused looks as she knelt down beside him and shared a long, lingering farewell kiss from which the two were eventually forcibly torn apart.
The play’s slow pace was complimented by Lachlan Nieboer’s Husband. The division into scenes prevented him building up a continuous head of murderous steam: the production’s insistence on giving each scene a definitive ‘close’ meant that he began each scene at a low pitch before building up his anger. While I felt that this rather spoiled the play’s pace, Nieboer used it to imagine the Husband as a far more reflective and considered figure than would otherwise be possible. His muttered trains of thought, spoken to himself, gave the impression of constant internal dispute and fractured logic, with the decision to kill his children coming as a result of that cold logic instead of from frenzy. This was particularly effective in Scene V, where the murders came with an element of planning: the Maid was held for a time before he snapped her neck and dropped her to the floor, and after stabbing his Wife and taking his second child, he sat with the baby (a doll) for a long time, dandling it and comforting it before resolving himself and slowly, almost gently, pressing the knife into it. The coolness of his actions was terrifying, and what was lost in the move away from frenetic madness was compensated for in this more chilling, more believable evil.
The opening scene, played with Yorkshire accents (reserved in this play only for servants in what appeared to be a standard decision to find comedy in the lower-class characters – though in this play, doomed to failure) was set in a pub and didn’t really add anything to the play other than starting on a relatively lively note. Oliver broke the banter with worries for his young mistress’s health, but it seems that the scene needs much more intervention than a straight reading to be effectively integrated with the rest of the play. More effective was the opening of Scene III, where Daniel Blacker’s Servant bantered with the Wife in a good-humoured discussion of the Wife’s concealment of her Husband’s prodigality. With both characters’ hopes uplifted, and the Wife’s overwhelming optimism brought to the fore, the moment at which the Husband brutally slapped her hard across the face had real impact, destroying in a second the faint hopes of averting disaster.
The progression of Gentlemen into the Husband’s house felt awkward, with the three men marching into the room and their leader immediately confronting the Husband (as opposed to the text’s implication of a more casual overhearing in a public place, thus prompting a spontaneous intervention rather than a planned one). Nonetheless, this was staged effectively, the Husband squaring up to their leader and addressing him with a despising tone, while being emphatically friendly to his two companions. The following encounter with Phineas Pett’sfourth Gentleman worked extremely well: here, the determined and deliberate invasion of the Husband’s space felt justified by the dialogue, which saw a friend of the Husband attempting to talk some plain sense into him. The two sat together, until the Husband picked up on the Gentleman’s comment on the Wife’s virtues and advanced on him. As the Gentlemen leapt up to defend his honour, the two embarked on a surprisingly violent and well choreographed stage fight, which ended with the Husband flat on his back, laughing in despite even as he was physically bested. This contrasted with his encounter with the quietly-spoken Master (Stephen Barden), who brought a quiet authority to the character as he stood over the subdued Husband. In many ways, the production identified this conversation as the moment at which the Husband decided to pursue his course of action: humiliated by the Master’s words, his suicidal determination to murder rather than shame his family began here, prompted by the appearance of his son who crouched behind him as he sat, teasing his father and ultimately occasioning his wrath.
Despite the repeated references to devil-possession, the production played the Husband’s strength and actions as entirely natural, even to the point of one officer scoffing at the Husband’s late declaration that “Now glides the devil from me.” The Servant was bested easily by the more physically imposing Husband, not by demonic intervention, and he was quickly restrained after being thrown from his horse by the officers who emerged from the back wall (where all off-stage actors stood, watching the action as if a continually-present jury) to apprehend him. When presented to the seated officials for his initial trial, the Husband was thrown to the floor and made to justify himself from that position. The shock displayed by the officials was carried over into their disgust with their prisoner as they escorted him to his final judgment.
In the play’s final moments, a sense of undeserved forgiveness reigned as the Husband and Wife held each other close, looking offstage towards the unseen bodies of their sons. The key line became “If the law could forgive as soon as I”, delivered with a tenderness treated by the onlookers as entirely inappropriate. In a final twist, however, the words were made immediately resonant: as the Husband was dragged back on stage to kneel before the audience, news reports of the recent Christopher Foster scandal were played over the sound system, the two stories sharing a disquieting level of commonality. While relevant and important for emphasising the topicality of the play, it felt a little superficial to simply bring this in at the end of the play, the link rendered gratuitous by the lack of exploration. It could even be considered to be quite tasteless: in the Foster case, there was no forgiveness, just murder, suicide and death. The company’s emphasis on the Wife’s forgiveness, though, left the purpose of the connection hanging: are we to assume that the deceased Mrs. Foster should also have forgiven her husband, or would if she had survived? Or are we meant to condemn the Wife’s easy forgiveness? These are important questions which deserved a fuller exploration than merely being tacked on at the end, where their perfunctory inclusion instead rendered the parallels far more reductive than this sensitive and nuanced story required.
Director Andy Brunskill’s production, then, was a timely resurrection of the play that suffered from too-literal adherence to its text and an interrupted structure that damaged the pace, but that boasted fine performances and a powerful grasp of the sentimental in its dissection of the ‘real’ relationships destroyed by desperate action.