Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville’s Gorboduc is often spoken of as the template for English tragedy. The first play to be written in blank verse and the first to employ dumb shows with its Chorus, the 1561 play establishes many of the conventions that would characterise revenge tragedy especially during the early years of the professional theatre. Yet it is also a play, as Alice Hunt argues, that comes out of the morality debate, situating competing viewpoints around target figures forced to make positions.
Read Not Dead, following its recent triumph with The Knight of the Burning Pestle, went ‘on the road’ to explore these elements, returning the play to its original context at Inner Temple, performed (mostly) by lawyers and law students. In an upper meeting room just off the main hall, Oliver Senton’s staged reading arranged the parts in formal groupings, staging the play as a combination of moot and instruction, yet surprisingly pointing to the humour embedded in the text.
Unusually for Read not Dead, only one of the performers was a professional actor, and as a result the staging was kept simple. The largest extravagances were saved for the dumb shows, accompanied by live music. While these could have been clearer, making more of the formal allegory, they were uniformly entertaining as chorus members broke branches (to the dismay of the original holder of the bundle), died horrendously after drinking from a poisoned chalice and pranced jollily around the stage as demons chasing men. One became aware quickly that the Chorus’s explication of the shows, which followed a whole act of the main narrative, were very distant from the shows themselves, perhaps obscuring the allegorical purpose, a fascinating insight which demands consideration of how early audiences would have interpreted them.
The lead character, it surprisingly emerged, was Eubulus, played by barrister Iain Christie. The character was conflated with the Chorus, allowing Christie to remain onstage after every act and offer the explication of what had just occurred. Dissociated from the main action, Eubulus’ voice was established early as the reliable voice of reason and caution, although humour was found following Porrex’s rebellion as he delivered the early modern equivalent of ‘I told you so’ to the anguished Gorboduc, stepping from behind him with an ironic tone.
The voices elsewhere were positional and frequently unreliable. Gorboduc can be a difficult play for modern audiences on account of its long speechifying, and it was fascinating to note a dynamic of increasing tension and relief among the audience as speeches finally wound to a close, often with titters as characters acknowledged their predecessor. Simple formal blocking allowed the positions to be clear: Gorboduc and Ferrex were flanked by their respective advisors, and in Ferrex’s case these advisors were put into direct competition with one another, speaking across the front of the stage to challenge each other’s views.
Fascinatingly, the dynamic that emerged was in direct contradiction to much of the criticism of the play and the play’s own claims, which position Porrex as the aggressor. Long before we saw the younger brother, Anton Eriera’s disgruntled Ferrex was worked upon by his glamorous, rather bitter mother (Rehana Popel) who, separated physically from her elderly husband, came across as a proto-Lady Macbeth figure. Ferrex was subsequently worked upon by James Batten’s gloriously evil Hermon, chewing the proverbial scenery as he fuelled the alarmed Ferrex with stories of rape and murder that he himself practically licked his lips at the thought of. By the end of this scene, Ferrex was quite clearly the aggressor, to the honest Dordan’s horror.
By contrast, Luka Krsljanin’s Porrex was decentred on the stage rather than surrounded by his advisors. This articulate and dynamic brother marched onto the stage with both parasite and loyal adviser following him, and the two gave their advice side by side. Vicky Bastock’s advice as Tyndar to arm was aggressive but justified, and the pleas of Rebecca Todd’s Philander (Todd, the only professional actor, did much throughout to dynamise the production) were discounted in Porrex’s need to react immediately. The performance, coupled with Porrex’s sincere contrition before his own offstage murder, suggested a more complex dynamic that located the play’s tragedy not in the evil of one brother, but in the situation created by the father.
Nigel Pascoe QC sat enthroned at the play’s centre as an elderly, tempestuous Gorboduc who inevitably recalled Lear in his ill-judged division of the kingdom while he still lived. Politically impotent, the static blocking rendered him helpless, particularly in contrast to Popal’s Videna who paced back and forth as she delivered her soliloquy of vengeance. Inevitably, the set-up of a Read not Dead does not allow for a great deal of sophisticated action, and in a play lacking so much in actual event it was difficult to differentiate, but the formalised arrangement and use of simple movement emphasised the various aspects of the formal debate.
Moving into the closing act, the awkward jump following the sudden news of Gorboduc and Videna’s deaths and the introduction of a host of anonymous lords marked the unravelling of the action. Bastock again made an impression as the dastardly Fergus of Albany, plotting his own overthrow of the kingdom, but the emphasis was clearly on none of the individual lords but on the chaotic situation. It would have been interesting, perhaps, to further explore the dimensions of the characters as rhetorical positions rather than primitively psychologised individuals and emphasise further the formal qualities of the text, but the point remained clear.
Out of the chaos, however, stepped Christie’s Eubulus to give the closing speech, and here the elision of Eubulus and Chorus made clear sense as the character stepped forward off the low stage to address the audience directly. As Eubulus talked, one could not help but hear the modern resonances. A divided parliament brought together by consensus but never achieving one. A warning against the dangers of dividing Britain into separately governed areas. A prophecy about panic and rioting in the streets when the people have no hope in their rulers. And a call for politicians to work together to ensure strong, clear leadership. While the specific calls for a clear succession are embedded in their own time (unless we want to read into the play the pressures on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge), this expertly delivered speech brought the play’s didactic purpose to the fore and ended on a call for engagement that made sense of the play’s ultimate agenda, placing Good Counsel and communal responsibility at the heart of the Inns education.