To call this “The First Public Reading” of Double Falsehood, as the website promises, wasn’t entirely accurate (see the KDC production and our own modest, but still public, reading at Warwick), but this was at least the first public reading of the play, since the publication of Brean Hammond’s excellent Arden edition, by a professional theatre company.
The reading was performed on the set of Nottingham Playhouse’s current Twelfth Night, from which some of the cast were drawn. When “off-stage”, the cast sat on the set (a huge set of stone stairs leading up to a Brazilian pavillion); when “on”, they moved forward to a semi-circle of chairs, on which they sat to read their parts. I was a little disappointed that the reading was so static; while the reading out of stage directions for moments of physical action worked fine, several basics (such as, quite often, the person being addressed) were frustratingly unsignalled, and the impact of asides, overhearings and movement dynamics were lost. Concealment was inconsistently dealt with – sometimes (e.g. Julio behind the arras) the actor simply withdrew to the “offstage” position; on other occasions (Violante listening to Roderick and the fathers) the actor sat at the far end of the circle of chairs.
The other weaknesses of a short rehearsal period were to be expected – a couple of actors struggled with some of their language, clearly not having had time to get to grips with the sense (sample error: in the line “but that I publish my Dishonour, /And wound my Fame anew”, “wound” was prounced nonsensically as “wow-nd” instead of “woond”); and entrances and exits were sometimes confused to misleading effect (e.g. 3.3.118-28 were addressed to Roderick by Violante, instead of as soliloquy). Errors such as these are inevitable in a rehearsed reading; however, if the purpose of a reading is to give a good sense of language and structure, particularly in the case of a play often written off as “bad”, these are the elements that should always be prioritised – otherwise, what’s the point?
Moving beyond those caveats, though, this was an entertaining evening, and it was a pleasure to hear a professional cast taking on the play. A sample delight was David Gilbrook’s wonderful performance as the Master of the Flocks. Making full use of the stage environment, he pulled Violante’s chair closer to his own before she sat down, and then proceeded to brush her cheek and put his arm around her, all with a huge smirk on his face. The obvious discomfort of the younger Violante added to the humour and creepiness of the scene, and Gilbrook’s frustrated and piqued treatment of Roderick following the latter’s interruption was particularly amusing. Beyond showing the effectiveness of this short moment, though, Gilbrook’s emphasis also drew out the unusual but fascinating fact that, in 137-48 as he reveals to the audience he has seen through Violante’s disguise, he continues to refer to her as “him” throughout. This might be read as a reflection of his own uncertainty, or perhaps suggest that he hasn’t identified her as a girl yet and thus hasn’t yet decided to attempt a seduction; here, however, Gilbrook brought out a wonderfully appropriate confusion of sexual fantasies about the feminine boy/boyish girl that ran over niceties of gender in his lustful excitement.
There was some nice characterisation throughout. Joe Dempsie and Kieran Hardcastle brought out a modestly amusing side to Fabian and Lopez that justified their treatment as comic characters without the need for excess; and their doubling in all of the servant/citizen roles worked nicely from a dramaturgical point of view, turning the functionaries into a series of recognisable and fleshed-out servant character types. David Whittington and George Telfer, meanwhile, treated the fathers largely with dignity, although Telfer lounged luxuriantly as Don Bernard reached the pinnacle of his pride, which added nicely to these scenes. Camillo’s interjections, particularly in the final scene, were spoken well, but suffered in the sedentary format – 5.2, with its careful layering of characters, liminal appearances and overlooked events, offered particular challenges in this regard.
Loreto Murray was particularly interesting as Leonora, bringing out a feisty side to the heroine which worked well. Neither shrew nor demurring maid, Leonora became a recognisably modern heroine, managing her father with a mixture of annoyance and restraint, and organising the plot surrounding the wedding. In this, and in her hiding of Julio, she became by far the stronger of the two lovers. Jonathan Race as Julio, by contrast, portrayed the character as a noble-minded but somewhat idealistic hero, prone to talking but ultimately dependent on others to push him into place.
Marcus Powell’s polite, well-spoken Henriquez was a serious sort, believable as a conflicted (and often out of control) young man, though perhaps a little too so; I found him far more sympathetic than the text had perhaps led me to think; and this might, again, be something lost in action. The justification of the rape was interesting; with no break, Henriquez remained on stage, which allowed for a visual continuity of thought between the two scenes despite the passage of time, thus giving Powell the opportunity to enact a deliberate break in his attitude. Finn Atkins, meanwhile, was sympathetically broken as Violante, and was surprisingly effective in the “boy” scenes – without prop disguise, Atkins was dependent merely on changes of voice to suggest the disguise, and perfectly evoked a melancholy Cockney waif. I was also pleased to see that Roderick (Nicholai La Barrie) defaulted to a central position in most of his scenes, allowing him to co-ordinate the action with an innocent and commanding air, remaining the audible locus of authority within the play.
Interestingly the Epilogue was retained, read by Gilbrook. I tried to gauge the audience reaction to this horrendous piece of writing; and wasn’t surprised to get the impression that no-one knew quite what to make of it. Gilbrook’s delivery, in a tone of smug self-amusement, was what I would expect from a 21st century ironic take on the 18th century sentiments, but I still felt it was a brave decision to play it – and the right one. The Prologue, of course, posed fewer difficulties, but remained a fitting introduction to a production presented in a spirit of Bardic inquiry.
A talk beforehand from Brean Hammond gave a good general introduction to the play (essentially a much shorter version of his Arden introduction), but did give him the opportunity to play us the extant song settings that he believes to have been potentially part of the play’s early incarnations, as well as to gently tease an anti-Stratfordian in the crowd who had offered him some useful extra sources. I wasn’t able to stay for the post-show talk, but it’ll be interesting to see how further readings/performances of the play go down, particularly as we move towards next year’s big productions in New York and Stratford.