May 4, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

A Yorkshire Tragedy (Shakespeare Institute Players) @ The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon

Sixty years ago the postgraduate students of the Shakespeare Institute of Stratford-upon-Avon launched its new dramatic society with a production of the apocryphal A Yorkshire Tragedy, attributed on its first publication to Shakespeare. Sixty years later, and with the play now confidently attributed to Thomas Middleton, the Players celebrated their anniversary with a fresh imagining of this taut, terrifying drama.

A wistful air pervaded a production that was keen to build on the snippets of back story provided in the unusual opening scene between three servants. Elizabeth Sharrett, channelling Miss Havisham (the second time I have had cause to reference this character in a production this weekend), floated about the stage humming to the sound of Jen Waghorn’s violin. As the jilted fiancée of the play’s Husband, she gazed upon a photograph while Waghorn helped her into a chair and sighed helplessly after her. The banter between the servants that followed was undercut throughout by the sight of the fiancée staring vacantly away, pointing up the sense of abandonment that drove much of what followed.

Peter Malin’s
production struck a fine balance throughout between sadness, graphic violence and even a few dark laughs (Rachel Stewart’s Principal querying after the Husband’s distraction after his major murderous rampage). The play stands or falls on the energy of the Husband, and Mark Spriggs delivered a tour de force. A large, powerful man in a confined space, Spriggs felt dangerous. Whether grabbing his wife by the arm or tussling with the Gentleman, he filled the space with a coiled energy that made his actions believably, frighteningly, physical.

The stage was cluttered with the signs of the Husband’s waste, furniture covered in tarpaulins apart from a single card table and, in a great in-joke, a sold sign across the empty glass case that usually houses the Institute’s prized famous picture of the Moorish Ambassador (currently on loan to the British Museum). The Son, an endearingly innocent Cassie Ash, played patience on the table, while the house’s women sat or stood stranded in an emptied room. This was a production that started midway through its endgame, the Husband needing just a final push.

The dynamic between the Husband and Wife (Helen Osborne) was charged and fraught. This Wife was no passive or patient figure, but a passionate and active partner who pleaded with her Husband for calm. The Husband’s aggression repeatedly blew up into shaking a fist in her face, grabbing her and finally striking her hard across the face. Michael Mueller’s fight choreography was smooth and effective, Osborne flying back in a shock strike that prefigured the violence to come. However, the moments of physical violence were unnecessarily highlighted by sudden flares of bright light, which problematically dissociated the physical violence from the more sustained campaign of verbal, emotional and threatened abuse throughout the play, disrupting the fluidity of the Husband’s campaign and undermining the severity of the built tension.

The long establishing scene saw the Husband visited by several warnings, most effectively by Charlie Morton’s Gentleman, the only character who bested him physically. Crucially, this was down to Husband’s distraction rather than his lack of strength, Morton twisting the knife out of his hand and abandoning the room. The Husband was more restrained and sarcastic with the more formal visitors, mocking the citizens who appealed to him and humbling himself before the Principal, in a rare moment of seated quiet before the main carnage.

The murder of the Son saw the cheeky, naive Ash picked up by the Husband and placed on a table, struck in the face and then stabbed brutally before being dumped on the floor nearby. Then, into a scene of domestic quiet where the Wife was sleeping, he strode, grabbing Yolana Wassersug’s Maid and slamming her head against a piano. The baby that the Maid cradled was picked up and the dagger thrust into it, before it was tossed casually and cruelly to the side. A brutal fight with Louis Osborne’s Servant followed, with the Husband slashing him several times across legs and chest, and kicking him hard on the floor.

Intercut between the violence, the jilted fiancée returned several times to the stage, quietly engaging with the sleeping Wife before jealously overturning the photograph of Husband. Images of women protecting each other were designed throughout to counter the male violence enacted on the Wife, with Wassersug sharing a great deal of stage time with the Wife. This was particularly emphasised as the Maid revived and wept over the dead baby with the Wife. While this rather diminished the impact of the Husband’s violence (of four bodies on the stage, three revived) and meant the Wife was less isolated, it did suggest a community attempting to reform itself in the face of disaster.

Yet this reformed community found itself threatened again in the final scene. While the scenes of capture and punishment were moved through briefly, they allowed Spriggs to snarl his defiance. But in a finely staged finale, he was dragged on stage and looked out into bright light suggestive of his house, from which the fiancée emerged to drape two red ribbons in place of the murdered children. Wife was brought on and seated, and her forgiveness was flagged up as a deeply problematic and uncomfortable emotional state, the other characters turning away from her in embarrassment and disgust. Osborne flung herself at her Husband and his response was disconcertingly sexual, the passion they shared serving to particularly point up the oddness of her final dismissal of a surviving child with her comment that nothing could replace her Husband.

In this fast, down and dirty production, Malin’s cast told a bleak story of uncomfortably blunt language, shocking violence and a contested state of forgiveness. Yet the production’s final interest was in different kinds of victim: the fiancé came to the Wife, left alone onstage, and held out a hand, refused in tears by the Wife. In white dress and black, the abandoned and bereaved lovers of the murderous Husband were the victims, but it was the deprivation of him that was the biggest void. The problems opened up by this play have rarely been clearer.
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