COMPOSITOR E at the Omnibus Theatre
“It’s a fascinating concept – well researched and historically accurate”
Who owns our stories? And how is meaning imbued in them? Marking 400 years since the printing of Shakespeare’s first folio, Compositor E, an original story and script by Charlie Dupré, explores the collective endeavour of its publication. We get beyond Shakespeare as singular genius and instead learn, directly and indirectly, about the role of King James I in the development of Macbeth, the printer Isaac Jaggard and compositors Richard and John who arrange the type for the first folio.
It’s a fascinating concept – well researched and historically accurate. There was a real 17-year-old John Leason who started an apprenticeship with Jaggard in 1622. Scholars have dubbed him compositor e, ranked fifth compared to the other compositors due to his inaccuracy and difficulties dealing with the manuscript copy. The play opens in the midst of the printing process in Jaggard’s printing house when John Leason arrives for his first day. It’s farcical seeing Leason thrown in at the deep end by a stretched and stressed Jaggard whilst Richard Bardolph, another compositor, winds him up. Leason is a fast learner and soon gets promoted to deciphering the manuscripts into type when Richard falls ill. But Jaggard’s advice that the compositor leaves a mark goes to John’s head, and he’s left thinking about making changes to correct, in his view, the wrongs that have been done to the women in the story, drawing on the wrongs that were done to his own mother.
The piece includes high calibre performances from the three main cast members. Tré Medley as John Leason plays both the naivete and dark underlying trauma with concentrated intensity. David Monteith as Richard Bardolph brings light relief, with his evenly-paced, booming voice and physical humour; pissing into a chamber pot and spewing up on stage. Kaffe Keating, for me, is the standout of the cast, playing the busy head of the family company trying to make a name for himself in his father’s absence with maturity and depth.
“Set and costume design are beautifully interpreted”
Medley has possibly the most challenging role of the three due to his character’s flighty and inconsistent nature. He goes from inexperienced apprentice, to plotting against his boss, to then packing up to leave in unbelievably quick succession, although Medley handles these well. What can’t be made up for is a lack of exposition in terms of his motivation. It’s clear early on that something around the circumstances of his mother’s death is haunting Leason, but it’s not until the final scenes of the piece that we start to unpick what happened, and why that drives his fixation on whether the women of Macbeth are wayward or weyard. Given so much of the tension of the piece derives from this – the audience needs to know, sooner, what’s going on.
Three female cast members use stylised movement to operate the printing press and mix the ink, evoking the three witches, or wayward sisters, of Macbeth. Given the plays strong critique of the treatment of women in witch hunts under James I’s reign – it would have been appropriate for there to be more speaking female characters, rather than them being an addendum to the main action.
Set and costume design (Sophia Pardon) are beautifully interpreted. All action takes place in the workshop and so the stage is covered with ink stains on the floor, across clothes and up the papyrus-coloured walls. Words spelt out by Leason are projected onto printed sheets suspended across the stage. The closing monologue is also supported by an intricate video projection (Rachel Sampley) that adds, alongside the musical crescendo (Adam McCready), to the sense of an earth-shaking moment with the publication of the first folio.
Compositor E has an original and inspired concept, brought to life by its talented cast and creatives. More internal consistency and earlier explanation of its main character’s motives would elevate this to greater heights.
COMPOSITOR E at the Omnibus Theatre
Reviewed on 22nd September 2023
by Amber Woodward
Photography by Dan Tsantillis
Previously reviewed at this venue: