Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is, arguably, the finest work by the much maligned Robert Greene, a historical romance in the vein of Fair Em and a fine example of the late sixteenth century stable of university conjurer dramas that also produced Doctor Faustus. It no doubt presented Read not Dead first-time director David Oakes with some significant challenges: this is a play, after all, that brings onstage Hercules, a dragon and a tree, a huge brazen head, myriad devils and a magical looking glass, while also sustaining a somewhat sentimental love triangle between Prince Edward, his friend Lacy and a virtuous but lowly maid called Margaret. Yet with tongue firmly in cheek, Oakes coordinated a hugely entertaining romp through the play.
Fascinatingly, despite the play’s title, what came across was the evenness of its plotting. A large ensemble of twenty actors all had their chance to shine, and the spectacular magical plot rarely overshadowed the central romance. In fact, the plots were presented as intricately connected through their shared parodic, even melodramatic, excess and comic deflation. The various devices used to create those effects varied, but the humour was that of undermined promise throughout.
James Wallace, as Bacon, was key to establishing the mood. On one level this self-confident doctor exuded an affable arrogance, punctuated by triumphant barks of laughter and a swaggering air. Affecting a disinterested demeanour, Wallace established Bacon as someone with assured presence, so comfortable in being the most powerful man in any room that he had no need to fight for control of the stage. His magic involved dismissive waves of his hand that caused daggers to stick in their sheathes or devils to appear. The climactic contest between himself and Mark Oosterveen’s bushy-bearded Vandermast was over before it had really begun, and one of the biggest laughs of the afternoon was reserved for Wallace’s dramatic pause before declaring himself ‘Bacon’.
Yet layered over this emerged a strain of melancholy romanticism that increasingly distinguished Bacon from those around him. Bacon was no wit, no ‘merry devil’ such as the later Peter Fabell. The character’s comic gravitas at times evoked As You Like It‘s Jacques, especially as he intoned deeply the promise of the brazen wall around England and the consequences of its loss. This was most notable at the play’s conclusion, as Bacon alone leant woefully against a pillar during the marriage promises, before turning to the audience to deliver his patriotic prophecy, accompanied by the cast placing hands on their hearts in mocking obeisance to Bacon’s simple patriotic statements.
Bacon was not the only character who had a tendency to self-dramatise. Fran Marshall’s Margaret, the object of no fewer than four men’s affections, and Jordan Metcalfe as the ultimate victor, Lacy, made comic capital out of the potential for melodrama in their wooing. During their final reunion, Margaret was dressed as a nun and held a cross high above her head, looking towards it with exaggerated zeal as she pledged herself to her God, and then throwing aside her habit with equal vigour as she finally forsook that life in favour of Lacy. Metcalfe, meanwhile, did a fine job of demonstrating Lacy’s foolishness, particularly bringing out the pathetic aspect of his admission that he had sent a letter breaking off the engagement purely to test Margaret’s faith. Their romantic commitment was made physically ridiculous as the two shuffled on their knees before Edward, taking turns to shield each other and offer themselves to the death in place of their lover.
Deflation continued throughout. Matt Houlihan’s excellent West Country Bungay, with tousled hair and unkempt shirt, was a superb foil to Wallace’s immaculate Bacon, a ne’er-do-well who spluttered when struck dumb, kicked his heels when upstaged by Vandermast and attempted to console his colleague following the loss of the brazen head. Bacon’s defeat of Vandermast, meanwhile, was dependent on deflation. Hercules and the Tree of the Hesperides appeared in silhouette behind a sheet hung at one end of the stage, but following Bacon’s appearance, Hercules popped his head out and embarrassed Vandermast through his whispered fear of disobeying Bacon. Later, Elinor Lawless’s Miles went to hell apparently a victor, as she took the wind out of the sails of Pete Basham’s devil who was mortified to find that, however many scary faces he pulled, the young scholar just wanted to chat.
Yet beneath the parody lay some more serious points. The pomposity of the severe academics was the initial target of Bacon’s magic, he pulling Rebecca Todd’s flustered but amusingly horny Hostess out from behind the screen to confront Helen Bradbury’s smug and discomfited Burden with his hypocrisy. Later, Martin Hodgson’s Ralph – explicitly taking on the Lord of Misrule role as he posed as Prince Edward – forced the same group of scholars into awkward pretend trotting as he took advantage of his temporary power. The production’s concern to prick bubbles was treated most seriously as Michael Marcus’s Prince Edward drew his sword on Lacy and Margaret, Margaret’s promise of suicide finally leaving him defeated and pliant (in a manner not too dissimilar to the state Shakespeare’s Edward III is reduced to by the Countess of Salisbury).
While emphasising the deflation theme, the production also took care to point up the patriotic aspects of the play. This was most sincere at the conclusion, but also saw the company stress the place names, including a dance by Hodgson in front of the venue’s windows as he mentioned Southwark. Against the celebration of England, David Meyer and (especially) Deidre Mullins had great fun with absurd Castilian accents as the King and Princess of that country, often hissing guttural sounds on entirely inappropriate syllables, while Adam Ewan’s camp German Emperor (who particularly enjoyed praising the beauty of the young Edward) presented another comically exotic foreigner. In contrast, the earthy West Country accents of the Fressingfield natives were designed to bespeak an honest simplicity, though the repeated and increasingly sexually loaded offer of ‘butter, cheese . . . Cream . . .’ following love matches suggested that these characters were far less innocent than they appeared.
Even more potentially serious elements of the plot were treated to comic excess. Stealing the entire show, Freddie Hutchins and Rob Heaps as Lambert and Serlsby channelled Made in Chelsea as two posh oiks challenging each other to a duel over Margaret, inserting ‘yahs’ and snorts throughout their exaggerated wooing and flailing dagger fight. Watching them in the ‘mirror’ (sensibly, these scenes involved a simple division of the stage rather than unnecessary props), Nathan Medina and Heather Dutton as their sons leapt to their feet and enacted a similarly excessive death, driving Bacon to wails of despair. In a different production, this might have been played straight to mark a shift in Bacon’s attitude to his own power; here, played comically, it once more added to the production’s self-conscious parody of itself.
This was realised further in Lawless’s Miles. The diminutive, creeping scholar, a dab hand with a caustic Latin insult and the unwisely smug confidence born of accompanying the powerful conjurer, was a central comic driving force, fast-talking and with an earthy wit that grounded the melodrama elsewhere and eventually took over from Ralph as the main comedic character. The relentless witticisms made for an interesting brazen head scene. Poking over the top of the sheet, the head’s static quality and sonorous voice were offset by Lawless’s energetic and irrepressible performance, she barely allowing the head to get a word in edgeways, and then denying even Bacon the opportunity to properly admonish her. Miles’s climactic departure to hell – a bizarre scene, even in so fantastical a play – was in many ways more satisfying as a conclusion than the final romantic reconciliations, as the talkative character finally exceeded the natural world of the play and left in triumph, waving at the audience.
The romance was ultimately resolved under the direction of Henry III (Alex Lanipekan), returning the play at its close to a history. While incidental to the more memorable aspects of the production, Henry and the dynastic marriage plot acted to anchor the play, returning it to the human dynamics on the literal periphery of which Bacon hovered. Interestingly, when seen as a whole, the play acted to cancel out magic more than to foreground it. Partly this was due to a comic acknowledgement of the no-budget approach, including a cry backstage of ‘Smash’ as Bacon destroyed the magic glass, but partly this was due to an intuitive use of space that ensured the magicians rarely took centre stage except when dealing with their own magical contests or the destruction of their own creations. When combined with the romance plot, Bacon’s role was supportive, displaying and enabling rather than taking over.
The silliness endemic to Read not Dead was beneficial to a play that might be seen as rather silly, and Oakes’s production proved its ability to amuse and entertain. The next challenge, I imagine, would be to test how far this humour is dependent on a self-consciousness that mocks even as it presents. As a play that features display as a core theme, one suspects that the allusive and self-aware tone struck by this company is endemic to the text, but perhaps there is also something more serious at the play’s heart. Nonetheless, another triumphant revival of a fine romance, and a welcome return to the stage for Greene.