October 6, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

A Christian Turn’d Turk (Read Not Dead) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Back in May, four teams of paired scholars and directors took the stage at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to pitch for the return of a classic Read Not Dead production. We could have had Middleton’s Your Five Gallants. We could have had Lyly’s Sappho and Phao (though perhaps Lyly needs have been better met recently by The Woman in the Moon). We could have had The Insatiate Countess! But Emma Smith and David Oakes won, somehow, by pitching the worst play they possibly could: Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turn’d Turk. The result, the final production in Read not Dead’s first season in the indoor Jacobean theatre, was exactly what you might expect: a frantic, chaotic, exuberant mess, with cracking performances and a relentless commitment to, for lack of a better word, the swashbuckling.

For this was a play about pirates, right down to the audience members in fancy dress. From John Gregor’s first entrance as Dansiker with eye patch, parrot on shoulder and a roar of “ARR!”, the production announced itself as squarely in Fantasyland, though veering between the Gilbert-and-Sullivan high camp of Colin Ryan’s Gismund and the Errol Flynning of Helen Bradbury’s Francisco. The production was at its most fun when engaging with the tropes and cliches of piratedom, including Star Trek-quality collective swaying to indicate an unstable deck and a marvellously thorough inter-ship battle that involved what seemed like hundreds of hand-held party-poppers and cannons raining streamers down on the audience.

To summarise the plot of the play is beyond my abilities here, but what came across fascinatingly in this reading was how relatively meaningless the various country allegiances and political alliances were. At its heart, this was a story of several rival groups of pirates double-crossing, betraying and tricking one another, and in that sense it bore far more resemblance to the Pirates of the Caribbean series than one might expect. At the heart of the chaos was Ben Lamb’s Ward, the titular Christian, but interestingly he seemed peripheral in his own story. Daborne’s relatively even-handed structure favoured whoever happened to come forth, and allowed for scenery-chomping pirates to take control of the stage at any moment.

The central hub of the play turned out to be the Jewish merchant Benwash, played by the always-wonderful Martin Hodgson. Hodgson, in full suit, swaggered around the stage with the confidence of the rich but quickly turned into a ranting cuckold, really coming into his own in some tremendous roared speeches that left him finally stuttering and spluttering, as well as allowing for some inspired moments of comedy (calling for his house to be saved until he realised that his wife was committing adultery, he allowed a single beat before roaring for the house to burn). Coupled with Mark Oosterveen as Ruben Rabshake, his servant, these two drove the key action of interest as they watched and plotted against Benwash’s wife Agar (Heather Saunders) and her paramour, the pirate Gallop (Doug Rao). Oosterveen’s sickly crawling and cowardice and Hodgson’s rage were the production’s highlight, and their final conflict – as the two attempted to negotiate the endgame of a plot to wound themselves to make a story believable – was both tense and hysterical as Rabshake first offered to betray, and then amazingly submitted himself to, his master.

The self-conscious ramshackle nature of Read not Dead works well on the bare stage of the Sam Wanamaker, lit by electric light rather than candles, where the few basic props and levels allow for a greater use of space and a more spectacular scale of pratfall. Barrels with false bottoms, mimed trumpets and clock chimes, and shouted noises of ‘Splash!’ when one character walked the plank, all added to the charm. Yet the DIY practical effects worked well here in the case of the play’s famous spectacular dumbshows. For Ward’s conversion and circumcision, the entire company came onstage and improvised a mime while Daborne’s epic stage direction was read out. Watching Adam Ewan improvise an ape having its tail cut off or Beth Park become an ass for her circumcised master to ride on made for an extraordinary set piece, and perhaps worked better to explicate and emphasise the significance of this event than any more realistic attempt at representation could have achieved. Special mention must go, too, to Gregor’s disguised Dansiker, with even a piece of cloth covering his ever-present parrot.

The tone of the play was less hard to judge, and in some ways the high camp muted some of the play’s more serious nuances as the necessary sacrifice for the collective humour. Ward himself seemed to offer something of Coriolanus’ pride and righteous rage in his conversions, railings and sudden bonding with his prior enemy Francisco, but his story – lust for Madeleine Hyland’s Voada, who in turn loved Park’s Fidelio, actually a girl called Alizia in disguise, who was betrothed to Robert Heard’s Raymond the Younger, son to a captured merchant and so on…. – seemed caught between ridiculous complexity and romantic sincerity. The nighttime assassination that led to the tragic accidental deaths of Alizia and Young Raymond (inescapably reminiscent of Othello, as much as I hate to keep making Shakespeare connections) carried genuine pathos as the two youths reached for one another on the stage and died in one another’s arms. This moment of innocence destroyed threw into relief the self-serving, self-interested natures of, seemingly, everyone else in the play.

The other main plot, featuring Gallop wooing Agar, was a straightforward city comedy. Gallop swaggered (Rao thoroughly enjoying playing the dashing, caddish pirate) and Saunders flirted outrageously in front of her overseers. Rao’s role turned out to be the play’s most interesting, shifting from romantic lead to sexual embarrassment (his breeches thrown from the balcony to lie revealingly on the stage) and from outright cowardice to something approaching defiance. What Rao and many of the rest of the company achieved impressively here was a suspense of tone: a seriousness of incident married with a lightness of tone that left it surprisingly difficult to tell whether this play would end in a a pile of bodies or in a set of happy marriages.

Bodies it was, however, and lots of them. While comedy couldn’t be resisted as Benwash skewered Gallop up his backside and vengeful pirates threw off their disguises to join in the cycle of stabbings, it was left to Ward to deliver his final anti-Muslim rant. The play’s casual racism was alluded to more than once by the actors and certainly the scathing sense of what it meant to ‘turn Turk’, particularly for the immoral and unpleasant persons presented here, or to act ‘like a Jew’ came through. Yet it was by no means race or religion that caused tragedy here, but the pursuit of one’s own ends in a complex, interconnected mercantile community that could not sustain individual interest. Even Dansiker, the reformed pirate, was killed, giving a rather bleak outlook to a play that courts comedy throughout. The winning team of Emma Smith and David Oakes created a fast moving, gloriously funny take on this confusing play that may not have resolved its inconsistencies and loose ends, but which captured the chaotic melee at its heart.

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