The Owle Schreame ‘Cannibal Valour’ residency at St Giles-in-the-Fields Church in London is one of the most exciting events in early modern performance this year. Beginning with a rare outing for George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois, the company are going on to give (presumably) world premieres of Thomas Nabbes’s The Unfortunate Mother and James Shirley’s Honoria and Mammon. Bussy launches proceedings and, based on Saturday’s matinee, promises great things for this large-scale investment in the obscurer reaches of Jacobean and Caroline drama.
Despite the company’s claims to be offering ‘experimental theatre’, the strengths of this production were actually in its solid delivery of text, its visceral and marvellously impacting performance of the play’s violence, and in its creative evocation of the spirit world that underpins the play, made particularly resonant here by the beautiful surrounds of the ‘Poets’ Church’ (in the graveyard of which Chapman, Nabbes and Shirley themselves lie buried, the latter two unmarked). Making full use of the balconies, the nave and even the font, this pared-down version of Bussy filled the sparsely attended space and allowed for an intimacy in proceedings.
Brice Stratford, directing and playing the title role, channelled Lord Flashheart in an initially swaggering performance, breezing in to a court presided over from a pulpit by Harald Veland’s King Henry and challenging the men, snogging the women and bellowing his self-made defiance of convention. Brilliantly, the impact of his bravado was brought home by the planting of actors in modern dress among the audience who shouted and took sides for and against Bussy, leading to the opening six-way duel that saw five bodies littering the aisles before twenty minutes of the play had passed. Stratford balanced the character’s arrogance by establishing an early rapport with the audience, spending much of the production among the audience, aligning his world view with that of the other newcomers into this world. Here, his relative amorality (affairs! murders! insubordination!) was less the focus than his Coriolanus-like self-positioning against a community of conspirators who were always beneath him.
Against him were pitted a succession of lords. King Henry played a lesser role here, but Christopher Elderwood’s wonderfully laconic Monsieur made for a two-faced villain, sneering from the aisles at Bussy’s rise and moving seamlessly towards his role in the destruction of the upstart. Giovanni Bienne was his opposite, a smug but passive Guise whose frustration at his displacement by Bussy was manifest even as he failed to find a way to challenge his rival. But coming into increasing prominence throughout was the third rival, Otis Waby’s black-clad Montsurry, the cuckold and later butcherous revenger who provided the only physical match for Stratford’s protagonist. Structuring the play through these three key rivalries, the company created a clear and action-packed narrative that narrowed down and focused Chapman’s play.
The series of stand-offs was complicated by Bussy’s affair with Rosalyn Mitchell’s Tamyra, physically dwarved by the men fighting over her but powerful as she asserted her identity and agency. Introduced by Oliver Maxwell-Smith’s Friar Comolet, a simpering but already tormented holy man who held his hand in pain to his head constantly, Bussy and Tamyra’s initial coupling was already doomed as cloaked figures swept in, surrounding and undressing them, rising in orgasmic unison as they concealed the bodies of the lovers. These figures would recur: initially created by the passing of cloaks to the bodies killed in Bussy’s first duel, they flanked the Behemoth (James Thompson) and later returned at the moment of Bussy’s death. This Chorus tied together the causes and effects of the play, mythologising Bussy’s actions.
The domestic aspects were not occluded, with the women in particular being allowed time to develop a relationship that, despite the actions of Lesley Free’s Pero, led to a moment of genuine pathos as she was murdered by Montsurry on the balcony, far removed from the shocked gestures of her mistress Tamyra. The interplay between Tamyra and the Friar (and later his Ghost, though his status by this point was far from clear) further insisted on a human element to the tragedy, with these two pathetic and dying bodies left crawling on the stage for some time. Comolet’s increasing fragility as he stood up to Montsurry and then later died in the throes of an epileptic fit, contrasted beautifully with the almost iconic valour of the other men. Tamyra, on the other hand, was subjected to horrendous violence as Montsurry had her repeatedly pierced in scenes of deeply disquieting torture.
Stratford and Thompson’s fight choreography was some of the finest I’ve ever seen, and put the major subsidised companies to shame. Fencing duels in the aisles had the audiences ducking for cover, while Bussy’s forceful punch of Monsieur was clearly felt by everyone in the church as the crack resounded round the walls. By the time the Behemoth emerged from a mass of his cloaked minions, hissing and tattooed, the gloves were clearly off and the torture scenes imminent. This slow descent into hell saw Montsurry bare his chest in emulation of the Behemoth and Bussy and Tamyra watch the murder of Pero from a distance, Bussy looking increasingly stranded as the supernatural – the one force he was unable to fight – took over the stage. Yet even as he faced his final battle, the cloaked minions refused to approach him too nearly, leaving Montsurry to finish the job.
The creativity on display here was impressive, but sometimes at odds with the raw immediacy of the main narrative. An opening sequence of songs (including ‘Hold thy peace’ from Twelfth Night!) had little relevance to the main plot, and the choreographed dance at the close (relying on the small audience to applaud for an inappropriately long time until Bussy finally ‘revived’) didn’t quite fit with a production that divorced itself from Jacobean formality in order to present something more akin to a Western. The music throughout was beautiful however, and Emily Baines’s orchestration of rounds and catches echoed magically in the church.
Deprived of something of the political context that grounds Bussy’s story in the French court, here The Owle Schreame reimagined Bussy as ronin, an essentially masterless warrior familiar in popular culture in everything from Rashomon to A Fistful of Dollars. Chapman’s hero became Marlovian, an overreaching individual finally crushed by the combination of his own breaches of societal code, the massed forces of the court and the unbeatable influence of the supernatural. Yet the lasting image was of Bussy going down fighting. Rendered iconic in this way, the company brought Bussy kicking into the twenty-first century, proving the dramatic power of this neglected piece. One only hopes that the previously untested plays work so well.