Miss this play and you will miss one of the most moving, original, superbly acted plays this critic has seen in fifty years of theatre-going.
It is a very local production in the sense that it deals with the relationship between William Shakespeare and the third Earl of Southampton, his undisputed patron but possibly much, much more. Was this simply an artistic patronage, helpful to each man in his assigned societal role, or was it an incredibly passionate homosexual affair that led each close to treason?
It is a complicated story. You need to have your wits about you to understand that there are three different scenarios played out through three different locations. Titchfield, Southampton House (London) and the South Bank (London). An illuminated small screen flashes A, B or C, as each setting begins. Which sounds horribly technical, but isn’t.
Within these three backgrounds, you have three different explanations as to why Shakespeare is called before the Star Chamber, at the start of the play, on a treasonable charge of inciting rebellion. The play ends back in the Tower of London. And these men still love each other with a poignancy which is hardly bearable.
But let’s go back to the beginning. The Nuffield stage is transformed. From conventional auditorium to a dark, in-the-round, opaque, black glass revolving stage with possibly cabalistic markings on the floor. This is the Renaissance – cue da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – when all convention is up for re-interpretation.
What remains unaltered is the soul-searing purity of the Renaissance music which pervades this production at almost every point. The black-hooded choir, under the leadership of Peter Bridgewood, is pitch-perfect and timeless. As the perfect partner to this divine music is the absolutely stunning choreography of the two dance scenes between Shakespeare and Southampton. They dance the canario as their sexual intimacy begins, later they mirror these movements but with antipathy and fear in an air-slashing duel, and then finally a reprise of the canario as Southampton languishes in the Tower and Shakespeare visits him in woman’s clothing to tell him he has, to save his skin, denied all carnal knowledge of his darling lover.
In between the opening and ending scenes, the audience is teased this way, that way about the truth of the relationship. But after all, ‘the centre is nowhere’. You can decide for yourself. What is absolutely beyond opinion is the totally brilliant acting of Tom McKay as Shakespeare and Tom Rhys Harries as Henry Wriothesley as Southampton. Each plays to the different interpretations of their relationship convincingly. Wriothesley breaks your heart as he navigates the tricky waters of his sexuality and Shakespeare similarly needs your empathy as economic necessity becomes imperative.
After Tuesday’s performance, there was a q and a session with the two actors, the musical director and the director, Samuel Hodges. How very generous of them all to give their time when they must have been exhausted! How wonderfully committed and unegotistical were their answers to the audience’s questions! But for your critic, the most important question remained unanswered: where is this production going next? I need to know because everyone who can’t catch it at the Nuffield needs to see it somewhere. Brilliant!
Future performances: 28 September-8 October (not 3 October) at 7.30 (Saturdays 2.30 and 7.30).