July 17, 2017, by Peter Kirwan
Mucedorus (Read not Dead) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe
Read Not Dead is currently in the grip of the Before Shakespeare project, offering a series of readings curated to show off some of the finest, genre-bending plays of the late sixteenth century. Mucedorus followed The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune and Fidele and Fortunio, and I was delighted to join the Before Shakespeare team to contribute a pre-show workshop on a play that I’ve written extensively on (plus a programme note and blog, for completists). Following the brilliant adaptation by students at Hull I saw last September, the staged reading offered a chance to see a stagger-through of the full text – and then some.
James Wallace’s text for this reading included all of the 1610 additions, printed on different coloured paper to help the audience distinguish between the earlier and later versions of the play; a great idea that was slightly undone by lighting that made it difficult for me at least to see the difference between white and pink. The reading also incorporated both endings of the play, with the company quickly rewinding to restart the concluding extract. This worked fantastically as a ‘before and after’ for the finale, with the appearance of the King of Valencia adding a formal level of reunification and peace-making to the later version of the play that contrasted markedly with the more hurried series of congratulations that closes Q1.
The opening conflict of Comedy (Mary Doherty) and Envy (Sam Cox, with bloodied arms) played as a genuine conflict, the two facing off against one another and sneering at each other’s vaunts. Much of the delight of Mucedorus is its generic fluidity, skipping between genuine threat and slapstick comedy. While Read not Dead tends to skew comic owing to the makeshift nature of the event, the genius of this production was its relative straightness, allowing the comedy to take a broad range of tones, from James Askill’s expert clowning as Mouse to the knowing satirical looks of the major players, to the absurdist stylings of Cox’s permed Bremo, a drawling cannibal. Read not Dead is inherently self-aware, and that translated well to a play that became knowing about its own typicality, the players winking at their stock figures even as they put them through their paces. The attention to alliteration assisted this especially, the actors accentuating the iterative syllables to exaggerate their effect.
Wallace’s production found surprising and entertaining topicality, both in Wallace’s own hesitation over the Prologue line ‘For from your beams Europe shall borrow light’ (evoking a fascinatingly and ambiguously electric response among the audience) and in the inspired decision to make Mucedorus’s ‘Shepherd’ disguise tennis whites, acknowledging that company and audience alike were missing the men’s Wimbledon Final. Rhys Bevan played Mucedorus dead straight, a Westley-inspired romantic hero offering bellowed morals, commanding defiance and some entertaining shrugs at the occasional requirement to demean himself. He was complemented in the serious plot by Lucy-Rose Leonard as a hilariously exasperated damsel in distress, constantly abandoned by her would-be saviours and forced to, for instance, lie on stage for an eternity while Bremo considered eating her. The straightness and heightened sincerity of the central romance plot set up the ideal to be punctured throughout.
Much of the puncturing fell to Askill’s Mouse. Played with a broad West Country accent, Mouse played up both the character’s bottomless stomach (regularly halfway out the door on the way to dinner, adding to the urgency of his hungry pleas) and the character’s constant misinterpretations (mishearings?) of his master’s instructions. He was the perfect foil to Edward Elgood’s Segasto, who like Mucedorus and Amadine played straight. Segasto’s civil villainy brought out the play’s class conflict nicely, his lip practically curling at the sight of the shepherd. With the Q3 additions, it’s hard I think to see Mucedorus’s self-abasement as the ‘shepherd’ as anything other than a politic sham, but the power relation worked beautifully, especially when Mucedorus was forced to kneel before Tim Frances’ King of Aragon. Yet Mouse’s role throughout was to undercut such moments of seriousness, and particularly his master.
The anarchic stylings of Mouse entirely skewed the balance of the production, in a way that makes sense of the title page’s emphasis on his importance. The character has 15% of the play’s lines, more than any character other than Mucedorus, and with most of these prose it is perhaps unsurprising that he came to dominate the production; almost literally, as he donned the clothes of those who died or disappeared until he was wearing a wardrobe’s worth of layers. The slapstick scenes were entertaining: he screamed when faced with a roaring polar bear (an actor with a mask, not a real bear, sadly), then paused to down his bottle of Old Speckled Hen, then screamed again; he passed a can of cider to an audience member while Doherty’s Old Woman searched him for his stolen pot of ale; he repeatedly interrupted Rowan Williams’s increasingly enraged Messenger; and the highlight of the whole performance was perhaps his delivery of the repeated injunction to Mucedorus to ‘begone, shepherd’, sung in operatic style and seemingly never ending. Bevan’s perfect landing of the subsequent ‘And must I go?’ was a great laugh line, but also a perfect encapsulation of how the play’s strategy of dramatic bathos works.
With the production following the doubling recommended by the early quartos, Cox had his work cut out shifting costume in eight lines between Tremelio and Bremo. The repeated figures of envious revenge here were nicely distinguished: Tremelio wore dark glasses and hoody, and attempted to off Mucedorus in a languorous sweep of his sword before indulging in a convoluted death himself. As Bremo, topless and cautious, he growled with a certain menace, wielding his club towards members of the audience and, later, shutting down Amadine’s pleas with a gruff refusal. While the temptation may be to see Bremo as ridiculous, there was a certain amount of intimidation here, implicit in Cox’s towering presence. The ridiculousness of Bremo’s death, as Mucedorus asks for instruction on how to brain someone, felt entirely earned, however.
What really worked, though, was the production’s pace. Even in a quickly rehearsed reading, the play rattled along from incident to incident. Set pieces such as the flight from the bear, the killing of Tremelio, the capture of Amadine, Mouse’s comic moments and the final confrontation with Bremo came in quick succession, and the play’s internal highlights (such as Mucedorus’s much-milked revelation of his true identity to Amadine) landed with dramatic force. The pace notably dipped for the more thoughtful Q3 additions, with Emmanuel Kojo’s Anselmo and David Meyer’s King of Valencia doing commendable work with the talkier scenes, capturing the emotional content of the King’s loss of his son (and his relief at hearing he is well) nicely.
Mucedorus revealed itself, I suggest, as the perfect Read not Dead play. Full of action and incident, self-aware enough to send up its own seriousness, and with a genuinely funny clown (who made excellent use of the strengths of the recurring ensemble; seriously, some researcher or other needs to sit down and talk clowns with Askill, given that he must now have greater experience of them that any other living actor?), the play was a riot, and exemplary of what this format can achieve.