September 26, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

The Tragedy of Hoffman @ Magdalen College, Oxford

Writing about Hoffman Symposium, Magdalen College, Oxford from The Shakespeare apocrypha

Seeing a rehearsed reading mounted by an academic society for an academic conference allows for some bizarre moments. One image from Elisabeth Dutton’s The Tragedy of Hoffman will stay with me for a long time, as it featured some of the academics whose work I most admire: Laurie Maguire, Katherine Duncan-Jones and Lois Potter as enlisted soldiers frogmarching in time to the barked orders of Old Stilt, played by Richard Proudfoot. While amusing, it perhaps also testifies to the fact that this reading, despite being rehearsed in a little over twenty-four hours, was something of a labour of love for those involved, a long-awaited chance to see a neglected but eminently stageworthy tragedy finally put on its feet.

I shouldn’t give the impression that this was a "jolly" of any description though: Dutton’s production boasted an exceptional cast (one, Brian McMahon as Mathias, even off-book) and a fully-staged, full-length version of the text, based on John Jowett’s little-known Nottingham edition. Interestingly, the consistency of character names was thorough but unmatched: where the beginning and end of the quarto refers to "Hoffman" and "Otho", and the middle uses "Sarlois" and "Charles", this production (and presumably Jowett’s text) used "Hoffman" and "Charles" throughout.

The production even stretched to thunder and lightning effects in the opening scene, and two skeletons (one real) had been procured to stand for the bodies of Hoffman’s father and Charles. The skeletons exerted a powerful effect on the production, drawing both audience and actors inexorably towards them and appearing to govern action and response. As Dutton later noted, the fact that one was real and thus extremely fragile meant that the actors had to work around the prop, rather than vice versa; but the effect was to heighten the sense of reverence that Hoffman felt for his father, while at the same time accentuating the horror of his actions. At one point, as he announced he would walk hand in hand with his father to revenge, he actually clasped the hand of the skeleton in an act of twisted tenderness; and later, he draped an arm casually around Charles’s skeleton. Hoffman’s familiarity and ease with death spoke, not of disrespect, but rather of a morbid fascination that rendered his subsequent actions all the more unpredictable.

Dominik Kracmar’s wonderful performance as Hoffman began with the offstage screech of hysterical laughter as he banished his melancholy. What stood out for me in Kracmar’s reading was the joy he took in the character’s double-backing and knowing trickery: as his accusations of treachery against Rodorick were proven false, for example, his eyes bulged with momentary hesitation before he proclaimed that "there is villainy, practice and villainy!" Engaged with the audience at all times, his shrugs and ironic delivery created a metadramatic tone that served the production well: rather than mock the conventions of revenge tragedy, this production simply showed a self-conscious awareness of its own performativity, allowing it to be amusing without approaching self-ridicule. Kracmar was crucial to this, but at the same time his partial dissociation from the main action (the various courtiers were particularly "inward-looking", concerned with their own reactions and losses rather than any larger narrative, which made sense of how easily Hoffman achieved his political ambitions) rendered him a somewhat lonely figure, often watching from the sides as fathers grieved and children died.

Kracmar was supported – and very nearly upstaged – by Nicholas Shrimpton’s Lorrique, an older Cockney villain with a great line in evil cackles. Lorrique matched his master’s metatheatricality, even to the point of lifting his French disguise to wink at the audience before commencing his scene with Jerome. Treading the fine line between comic servant and sinister assistant with considerable skill, Shrimpton turned Lorrique into a compelling protagonist, an amoral villain with a clear sense of his own identity. His affectation of abused innocence was especially effective, ingratiating him convincingly with the court while continuing to plot in the audience’s hearing. Yet he and his master were also human in their scheming, and fallible: twice in the play, an "aside" is actually overheard by an onstage character, and on both occasions (Hoffman reassuring Charles; Lorrique hastily backpedalling under the rage of his master) genuine comedy and dramatic tension was found as these villains attempted desperately to account for themselves. Where the play appears to recommend itself on its action, in practice it was the fast tongues of both Hoffman and Lorrique that kept me rivetted.

In another pleasant surprise, the third dominant personality was Martha, played by Edwina Christie, despite only entering the play in its final third. Emerging dramatically from the audience along with her ladies, and standing in a spotlight, clad in black, the impact of this character’s introduction was strikingly felt. Martha was the only person with the self-awareness and wit to be able to understand and counter the treachery of Hoffman and Lorrique, and so she entered as a type of nemesis; a quietly poised and self-possessed personality who, even before Hoffman appeared, was clearly too significant for him to be able to dispatch. Christie’s strong performance emphasised Martha’s subtle manipulation of the murderers, particularly as she gently "seduced" Hoffman in order to draw him into an ambush.

The middle section of the play was partly taken up with the comic subplot of Jerome’s insurrection. Kelley Costigan’s fantastically-costumed Jerome was every inch the stage braggart: striding about, gesturing wildly and allowing no word of conversation to pass without his comment. In a tour de force performance, he engaged in a long and affectionate discourse with his toy horse (that, reversed, served as a sword), defied everyone else on stage and generally added colour and comic value. Yet, in Costigan’s performance, something a little more pathetic could also be glimpsed; the loneliness and desperation of a son disinherited by his father, and there was a note – just a note – of poignancy in his death. She was ably supported by Stephen Longstaffe’s Stilt, who stood out in his final simple pleas before execution, convinced in his twisted worldview that his actions were in some way understandable.

The appropriation of self-consciously theatrical types throughout, as in Costigan and Kracmar’s performances, fed into the love-plot too. The flight of David Kennerley’s Lodowick and Sarah Anson’s Lucibella was made into a very amusing sequence: dressed in ludicrous Grecian costumes, they lay on an arbour and delivered over the top promises of fidelity to each other before falling asleep on rich cushions. While the revenge plot overtook the romance motifs, however, Anson brought something very interesting out of Lucibella in her later madness, particularly after reappearing in Charles’s clothes. She became a breeches part, boyish and strident, and active in drawing the counter-revengers into her service. While the body-count in this play is particularly high, I was struck by how many of the main cast were still alive at the end to surround and subdue Hoffman; what kind of society, one wonders, is implied by the survival of the doddery Saxony, the once-traitorous Rodorick, the cross-dressed Lucibella and the suicical Mathias?

What were the weaknesses of the production? Well, the fact that this was a reading meant that some of the more involved pieces of physical action (particularly Hoffman secretly stabbing Austria) were difficult to pull off, though in the context this hardly mattered. I was also struck by how long and inert certain scenes of the play are, particularly that in which Lorrique recaps the entire plot for his onstage audience – and he’s a far less interesting character once he has his change of heart! It’s inevitable, in a play so rarely performed, that putting it on its feet will reveal not only the strengths but also the reasons why it perhaps doesn’t work so well on the modern stage, but it was great to at least see action tried out, even if a full production would probably cut it.

Other issues inherent in the text were drawn out. How is, for example, Lorrique meant to get a burning crown onto Charles’s head in the opening scene – a powerful and shocking opening to the play. Here, it became a semi-comic routine as Lorrique attempted to drop it onto his head from a shovel, before picking it up from the floor with "burning" fingers. It was also noted, later in the day, how effective the characters’ rhetoric remains even while their brains are being burned out! Despite the play being apparently incomplete in the extant version, the company aimed to "finish" the play by having Hoffman don the burning crown during his final two speeches, spoken as he clutched at the torture device. From my point of view, this worked absolutely fine. In a play that is so resolutely about the central character, having Hoffman kneel and curse his persecutors as his brains are fried out seemed a powerful and fitting, if unconventional, close. It’s a crying shame that the production only got this one airing, but with a bit of luck, the availability of a cheap, modernised text in Emma Smith’s forthcoming edition will allow more amateur and professional troupes to rediscover this thoroughly entertaining play.

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