Staging Read Not Dead productions.
Director James Wallace gets a kick out of staging old plays relegated to annals of time. Here he explains why he is excited to stage The Tragedy of Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt by Philip Massinger and John Fletcher from 1619 as part of Read Not Dead on 18 November.
A proud republic sliding towards autocratic rule. A leader exploiting nationalism and religious divisions for his own interests. Who claims to be challenging the elite but who is only interested in his own power. Who says he’s putting his country first while doing favours for foreign leaders in return for wealth and support. A leader for who thinks the rule of law is just a tool to crush his enemies and which doesn’t apply to him.
Sounds familiar? You may not have heard of Philip Massinger and John Fletcher’s King’s Men play The Tragedy of Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt, but the politics of the Dutch Republic in 1619 resonate with the present day.
If you haven’t ever heard of the play, it’s not that surprising. The manuscript was only rediscovered and printed for the first time in 1883. Even now, no modern spelling edition exists in print (I’ve had to prepare one for the actors myself).
Yet despite its neglect, this play really is that overused word – a masterpiece. Its first editor thought so, and so do I. I first staged it for Read Not Dead fifteen years ago, and jumped at the chance to do it again. I’ve worked on over a hundred of these neglected plays for the project, seen a hundred more, and this is the best of them all – a proper play, a meaty, serious drama, a tight political thriller with bravura parts for actors.
It plays on our fascination with seeing the mighty fall. It’s the ‘Downfall’ of its day, and Barnavelt presents the same spectacle of a once all-powerful man unhinged by desperation as he feels his grip on power slip, raging as his end approaches, still unable to distinguish between his own fate and that of his country.
It’s not Shakespeare. For a start, it’s much easier to understand. It doesn’t have his dense poetry, nor the impenetrable slang of his clowns or of the city comedies of Jonson or Middleton. There are no gods or ghosts or improbable reunions. These are real people in the real world, driven by their own ambitions and smashing up against history. And the play’s structure is a reminder that post-Bard playwrights actually got a little better at these things…
So why its neglect since it was rediscovered, a century and a quarter ago? Aside from the uncatchy title (The Dutch Tragedy, anyone?), our Shakespeare-centric world tends to ignore The Globe’s output after his death. And if these plays aren’t published they don’t get performed, and if they don’t get performed then they aren’t published.
It’s a vicious circle that Read Not Dead exists to break, and on 18 November you can be part of it, joining a crack ensemble of actors immensely experienced in bringing these old plays back to breathing life. With just one day’s rehearsal, this is as live as it gets – a shared experience between text, actor and audience created together in exactly the same fraction of a second for everyone. Don’t miss it.