November 14, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany @ Shakespeare’s Globe

I’ve never, to my everlasting shame, been to a Read Not Dead reading at the Globe, which is something of a travesty for someone with such an interest in overlooked and rarely-performed early modern drama. To be fair, they’re at 3pm on a Sunday and – as was borne out today – it’s a pain to get back to Coventry after them. However, despite coming rather late to the party, I have to say that today’s reading of Chapman’s(?)/Peele’s(?) Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany made a fan of me.

With the Inigo Jones theatre unavailable, Matthew Smith’s production was staged simply in the rather cramped space of the main lecture theatre, but provided a clear and entertaining – if a little too slow for my taste – runthrough of the play. This 1590s play of revenge and political intrigue – a sort of Richard III meets Hoffman by way of The Jew of Malta – was built around Alan Cox’s sneering, self-obsessed Alphonsus and Nick Kay as his murderous assistant Alexander, who progressed from boyish avenger to seasoned evil in a compelling arc. The relationship between the two was particularly effective in the final act, with their evil almost on a par as Alexander grew into independence.

The complex plot was ably clarified by effective differentiation between the seven electors who are Alphonsus’s enemies, from Andy Whipp’s calm Bohemia to Kevin Quarmby’s Mentz, who began dour and ended in a frenzy of OTT pleading with Death on behalf of his "dying" sovereign, before giving a look of priceless horror as his wishes to be killed were interpreted literally by Alexander. I particularly liked Robert Mountford in the small role of Brandenburg, whose expressive eyes and outraged expression at slights against German honour provided great humour.

With the play essentially revolving around the repeated offing of various nobles, it was inevitably Alphonsus who dominated. His easy relationship with the audience – showing us his poison bottles, giving the thumbs up, luxuriating in soliloquy – rendered him an engaging protagonist, and his careful control and manipulation of those around him was brought out neatly as Cox slid between his enemies, choreographing the action. As such, his last minute conversion was a little disappointing, but reached a final dramatic peak as he grandly renounced Heaven, arms outstretched one last time to the audience.

The comic tone of Cox’s performance was realised elsewhere, notably in the long German-language scene in which the disguised Duke Richard of Cornwall was beset by two assassins. James Wallace found plenty of comic fodder in his whispered translations of the assassins’ words, and the battle itself was carried out in a farcical mix of men hitting one another with paper and the melodramatic death rattles of Quarmby’s Jerick. Similar amusement was found in the dance scene, as the actors good-humouredly attempted a series of dance moves within which the whispered conversations of others could take place.

Dale Rapley’s Edward was central to the humorous tone, and to the shifts to darker matter in the second half. In the wooing of Hedewick – the scene most usually picked out for its Shakespearean resonance, mirroring Henry V’s flirtation with Katharine – he combined cynicism, exasperation and hearty bravado. Later, upon having lost his wife through a trapdoor, his plaints caused plenty of laughter in both onstage and offstage audience. Yet, as characters began to die, Edward became a focus for moral conscience. The horrific scene in which Liam McKenna’s Duke of Saxony demanded that Edward acknowledge Hedewick’s child as his (Alexander had performed a bed trick and secretly fathered her child) was the climax of the production: after repeated shouted arguments and Edward’s assertions of his own honour, Saxony put Hedewick’s baby on the floor, and then stamped violently on its head before throwing the body to the English Prince, an action played so carefully and respectfully that it drew a genuine gasp of terror from the audience. His subsequent killing of his own daughter left no doubts that the play was no comedy.

The work of the RND team is significant and important; a play such as Alphonsus, which hasn’t been edited in well over a century and is practically unknown and unreferenced in studies of the drama, can have an airing and be enjoyed in a format that reasserts the play’s importance. The good humour and sophistication brought by an experienced group of actors resulted in a performance far more accomplished than one might expect, and a wish that this sensational play might some day get the bigger treatment it deserves.

Posted in Theatre review