Wednesday, May 16, 2018

EASTWARD HO! at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - Read Not Dead!

Now that the Globe has emerged from it's extended period of being used as an adventure playground for backward adults, it is safe to return and on Sunday we had our first visit in two years.  But to ease our way in, we went to see a rehearsed reading rather than a fully-staged play.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse within The Globe stages a small season each year called Read Not Dead in which little-seen or known plays get an airing where they are meant to be experienced - on a stage.  The rules of the game are that a director will gather a small cast together, present them with the texts in the morning then in the late afternoon they present the blocked and rehearsed reading to a paying audience; the idea being that the dust will be blown off the pages by the nervous energy of cast and audience alike.

Sunday's re-discovered play was EASTWARD HO! which was first performed in 1605 and was a collaboration between the playwrights Ben Jonson, George Chapman and John Marston, three noted writers combining to give the London stages the latest in cutting-edge satirical City comedy... it proved a bit too cutting-edge: King James I took umbrage at the jokes about the Scots and cash-for-titles resulting in Chapman and Jonson ending up in prison for a few months... luckily Marston wasn't around at the time so wasn't imprisoned!

One would have to know exactly what to look for nowadays to see what could have caused such offence but it fits the play nicely into the Globe's cross-season of plays dealing with stage censorship.  The play has occasionally be revived but they are few and far between - there was even a musical version in 1981 that starred Richard O'Brien (in another attempt to broaden his ROCKY HORROR persona), Belinda Sinclair, Anita Dobson, Philip Sayer and Clive Merrison, with a score by Nick Bicat and ROCK FOLLIES writer Howard Schuman - it lasted 45 performances.

Needless to say, it was all a bit upsy-dutch as we were let in to the auditorium late to be greeted with the rather ominous news that they hadn't finished rehearsing the last act.  The running time was 3 hours plus - towards the end I honestly thought I would have to leave as the purgatorial hard benches were KILLING my back.

I survived however and I must say it was a very enjoyable experience - it indeed had the shaggy, missed cues, stumbling quality you might expect but the cast all pitched in and there was even a memorable performance or two.

The sprawling plot has a goldsmith William Touchstone having apprentice trouble: Quicksilver wants to get out into the world and live an uproarious, drunken life while Golding is studious and diligent in his work.  Touchstone's two daughters mirror this pairing: snobbish Gertrude is desperate to marry into money and be a proper lady while Mildred is rueful and quiet.  The whole Touchstone family are excited when Gertrude seems to get her wish and marry Sir Petronel Flash, a Knight who has a huge estate in Essex.  The trouble is... he hasn't!  He is broke and looking forward to receiving Gertrude's large dowry.

Touchstone chucks Quicksilver out of the house then promotes Golding and allows him and Mildred to marry.  Quicksilver and Sir Flash meet and decide to use the Touchstone dowry to sail to Virginia to seek their fortune with Quicksilver's Jewish money-lender friend Security... the trouble is that the captain and crew are drunk and the ship sinks while still in the Thames!

Needless to say it all ends up in a court but as all are flawed in one way or another, it all ends up happily!  The characters are so vivid, larger-than-life and silly, it is a surprise that the play is not better known.  Director Jason Morell gave it all a winning brio and elicited good performances from Michael Matus as Touchstone (it was fun to see the different uses he had for his catch-phrase "Work upon that now!"), Ralph Davis as Quicksilver (luckily he had clean pants on as he had a lengthy scene with his trousers round his ankles), Tok Stephen as the sober Golding and Nicholas Boulton as the wobbly-kneed, penniless Sir Petronel Flash.

Apart from those damn benches, it was very enjoyable.

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