t the end of yet another successful Read not Dead reading, over the wine and nibbles laid on by The Globe for the hardworking volunteer actors, coordinator James Wallace fell to chatting with some of the regulars. ‘You know’, mused James, ‘we’re all quite wonderful. We’ve collectively performed hundreds of the most obscure plays of the early modern period, building an unprecedented performative knowledge of the entire repertory, and we play to packed and enthusiastic audiences week after week. Wouldn’t it be quite something if we formed a company and gave some of these plays a full outing?’
I don’t know if that’s how The Dolphin’s Back actually began, but it should have been. Pulling together a number of Read not Dead alumni as well as high profile newcomers, and moving across the road to the excavated foundations of The Rose, Wallace’s full staging of Marlowe’s least-performed play brought together a company of intimidating talent in an intimate space on the viewing gallery in front of the cavernous flooded basement that houses the ruins. Running at a snappy ninety minutes, this was a mouthwatering taste of what this new professional company will hopefully be offering in the coming years.
The Massacre at Paris peaks early and never looks back. The scene was set as the company emerged and threw white confetti over Lachlan McCall’s Navarre and Beth Park’s Margaret of Valois, a wedding tainted from the start by the knife-sharpening threats of Kristin Milward’s Catherine de Medici (channelling Maleficent) and the pyjama-wearing Duke Henry (James Askill) who whisked away the wedding cake for himself. The shakiness of this initial alliance was further undermined by the shift to John Gregor’s Duke of Guise, looking with binoculars over the lake and delivering one of the longest and most deliberate soliloquies of the early modern stage, setting out for his audience the plans for the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
With so many threats clearly established from the start, it was clear peace would not stand a chance, and the body count immediately began. Shadowy snipers at the far end of the lake winged Richard Koslowsky’s Lord Admiral with a pot shot and Joan of Navarre (Fran Marshall) fell to a pair of poisoned gloves that she couldn’t help herself from repeatedly smelling. As the bodies fell, spurts of red confetti flew from their wounds or mouths, littering the stage with red. As the play accelerated, the pool of red grew, an ever-present physical reminder of the lingering presence of the opening shots.
The eclectic costume, spanning the early twentieth century to hoodies, was echoed in an irreverent but thrilling treatment of the Massacre itself, much of which was lit only with handheld electric torches. Bodies span across the stage, and the masked assassins alternately skulked through the shadows and hollered openly. Duke Henry wore a Porky Pig mask and giggled ecstatically as he joined in the spree, while Guise stamped authoritatively through the melee and executed the terrified Huguenots coldly. Aesthetically, the clouds of confetti caught in the light and the tumbling bodies evoked, to use an overly tired comparison, the best of Tarantino in their stylised, rock-scored sequences.
Yet this production was far less about spectacle than about voice. Gregor’s Guise was the closest to a lead among a strong ensemble, his measured but committed tone a chilling evocation of the Machiavellian politicking that drove the slaughter. His anger came out at moments of challenge – his terrifying instruction to his Wife to flee if she wanted to live following his discovery of her letter to another man; his furious screams against Protestants as he finally met his end. While some of the dialogue couldn’t help but be comic (‘I have received my death wound; now, let me speak a while!’), Gregor created an upright and controlled man whose zeal for his cause rendered him surprisingly sympathetic.
Any sympathy for Guise was a result of direct contrast with the truly horrific characters. Catherine’s hyperbolic villain gloried in the destruction, laughing long and hard, but the revelation here was Askill. His childlike and utterly amoral murderer morphed into a gleeful young King, immediately evoking Edward II as he brought together several male flatterers whom he kissed passionately and giggled with, even as Guise railed at their insults. Koslowsky was excellent here as Henry’s devoted flatterer and lover Epernoun, fawning and manipulating Henry. Yet although he was clearly ineffectual as King, somehow his power was quickly consolidated, with Guise and his brothers killed in short order and Henry himself barking orders from his privy. By his final scene with Navarre, the young King was dressed in formal uniform and articulate, a man who tussled with his murderer and ordered peace with Elizabeth’s England as he succumbed to his wounds and Epernoun prostrated himself alongside the body. Pleasingly, also evoking recent productions of Edward II, Henry recognised his murderer who was played again by Gregor, Guise ghosting this moment of revenge.
The play itself loses focus during the complex mopping up exercises that follow the Massacre, but the ensemble acquitted itself well, allowing the succession of deaths (choreographed by the always compelling John Sandeman) to be uniquely individualised. Sandeman himself took responsibility for the brutal and elongated throttling of Theo Kingshott’s Cardinal in a visceral sequence, with every sinew straining as he finally snapped the body’s neck, while the stringing up of the Admiral’s limbs was carried out in a spirit of ghoulish amusement. The shifts in tone gave welcome relief to the relentless killing, but also pointed to a complex critical distance throughout a play that allows for emotional depth but also presents its victims in too quick a succession for complex psychology. Coupled with the aestheticised violence, the production understood the importance of avoiding reducing the massacre to a handful of individual killings, instead evoking with a detached distance the sheer scale of the machine-like atrocities.
With not a weak link among the cast, the production marshalled its meagre resources expertly to bombard its audience with a terrifying array of violent acts. The dizzying speed of Marlowe’s play and the relentless, inescapable slide into further horror left this breathless but entirely clear, the blackest of black comedies. It’s a bold statement of intent for a new company and a hopeful taster of work to come.