“the charm and energy of the cast keep things bubbling along”
Marlowe’s Fate by Peter B. Hodges, and directed by the author, has just opened at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington. Set initially in 1593, the year of Marlowe’s death, this is yet another drama dealing with the question of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Answer: Shakespeare. But Shakespeare skeptics around the world will rejoice at a new exhumation on an epic mystery that never seems to stay buried. The set up is this: what if Marlowe didn’t die in a tavern brawl in Deptford, but was, instead, spirited away to Europe as a spy for Queen Elizabeth the First and her Privy Council?
Peter Hodges has chosen to treat this material in a comic way, and it’s certainly more palatable than the alternative. Marlowe’s Fate opens in the aforementioned Deptford tavern. Present are the hired assassins, Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, discussing the job of dispatching the playwright who has been dazzling London theatre audiences with his Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus. They are regretful about having to kill him since they are fans. Marlowe himself enters, and is, understandably, a bit upset to discover that he is about to be assassinated. He is only a bit less upset to find out that his death is going to be faked so that he can continue his work as a spy. At this point, Marlowe’s Fate becomes not a play about Marlowe’s mysterious death, but instead, a play about his eventual return from Europe (if ever). But to Marlowe the playwright, the more important question is this: how he can continue to write, and get his poems and plays out to his adoring public? Well, you guessed it. Enter an uneducated, unsophisticated glover’s son named Will’m Shaxper (sic) from Stratford upon Avon, looking for work with a local printer.
I won’t provide spoilers for this Marlovian/Shakespearean romp except to say that it has a little bit of everything. “Everything” including a rather wonderful impromptu puppet show featuring the Annual Shakespearean Author’s Challenge that opens the second act. As long as you are comfortable with the way that Marlowe’s Fate quickly devolves into absurdity from the few known facts about Christopher Marlowe (and William Shakespeare, for that matter), you will enjoy Hodges’ work in this spirited production. The play is overly long, and there is way too much exposition needed to explain how everything comes about, but the charm and energy of the cast (particularly Nicholas Limm as Marlowe, and Lewis Allcock as Shaxper) keep things bubbling along. As with most productions at the White Bear Theatre, “great reckonings in little rooms” are standard fare here, and the seven actors of Marlowe’s Fate don’t let the small space cramp their style. Penn O’Gara’s costumes and puppets are delightfully and economically made, and Reuben Speed’s Elizabethan tavern design feels appropriately “period.”
This is definitely a show for Shakespeare scholars seeking a break from another interminable conference, or for graduate students in search of a busman’s holiday from writing the never ending PhD dissertation. But really, Marlowe’s Fate is for anyone who enjoys a good “what if?” rather than a “whodunnit.”
“There is so much charisma and bite on stage, it seems slightly ridiculous that we should be allowed to experience this in such an intimate setting.”
Twenty or so fold-out chairs, scattered two metres apart, surround a small fairy-light-canopied stage, nestled beneath a big old tree at the bottom of the garden. Not quite summer anymore, there’s a significant nip in the air as the sun sets behind us, and the select crowd snuggles in to their jumpers and coats (one couple taking a sneaky swig from a hidden flask- not a bad idea), readying for the show to begin.
It doesn’t get much more picturesque than that, really. And besides the fact the location was likely chosen due to Covid, it feels more like the perfect setting for a small Midsummer Night’s Dream production or Woolf’s pageant in Between The Acts, and the limited audience makes it feel all the more special. Maybe it’s not extra practical for the production, but I’m having a very nice time…
“Why is everything so bland?”, Cesare Borgia (James Corrigan) begins, lamenting the misery and boredom of his princely responsibilities. He yearns for a taste of freedom, and so decides to offer his position and title to a passing unemployed politician, Niccolò Machiavelli (Nicholas Limm) who jumps at the opportunity, while Borgia himself guises as a struggling artist because, as he rightly posits, “The truth is simple: Artists win at life.” Simultaneously, Leonardo da Vinci (Akshay Sharan), similarly sick of his lot, decides to seek something more grounded than the lofty arts and, also disguised, finds a job in the Borgia palace as a politician. Cue a series of hilarious misunderstandings, disguises piled on top of disguises, genders swapped, stations elevated and swiftly demoted.
Writer Charlie Ward packs a lot in: war, politics, religion, romance, gender identity, class disparity, and all in a form that sits somewhere between a bedroom farce and a Shakespearian comedy.
Everything is in rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter (I think?) and just as with a Shakespeare play it takes a little while to find the rhythm, so with Renaissance, the first few scenes of dialogue are largely lost while the audience recalibrates. But it does give the story a pace, and a certain flavour which, being that it’s set in the sixteenth century, feels apt.
Before lockdown, nearly the entire cast was committed to major theatrical projects elsewhere, and you can see why. There is so much charisma and bite on stage, it seems slightly ridiculous that we should be allowed to experience this in such an intimate setting. The physical comedy and timing displayed, combined with everyone’s extensive previous experience with Shakespearian language brings a very comfortable, natural delivery, as though they spent their lives speaking in rhyming couplets. Corrigan whips between silly and domineering with ease; Bethan Cullinane is a force, so quietly sure of herself, she hardly moves whilst somehow absolutely commanding the stage. And Haydn Gwynne is just fabulous. Considering the immediate affect her presence makes on stage, she feels slightly underused, though you might say that of the whole cast really.
Director Emma Butler’s design is massively pared down, a necessity for such a small stage, and a relief really – there’s already enough to focus on with the grandiloquent language, and striking performances: Costumes consist of a simple palette of whites, creams and dusky pinks, and the ‘disguises’ comprise skirts swapped for trousers, shirts rebuttoned disheveledly, and dodgy French accents. It works though, and adds to the comedy, that someone should merely put a hat on and say they’re someone different from the person they were two minutes prior in the same company.
As theatre slowly starts to pick itself up again, even those productions that do manage to cobble something together will likely be taking an artistic hit, having to re-mould themselves in line with government guidelines. On this occasion, though, the restrictions have only enhanced the audience’s experience. How often do we have the chance to enjoy such a concentration of talent in such an intimate setting, and with fresh, new writing? Take the opportunity while you can, before (hopefully) everything returns to some semblance of normality and such an event becomes near impossible.