Equivocation, Seattle Rep/Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2009
If you have not seen this play, stop reading this blog. Go to this website. Order tickets immediately for yourself and all your loved ones. You can do it now; I’ll wait for you to come back.
Got your tickets? Great; you can thank me later. If you’re so inclined, try the spicy hot mulled wine they’re serving at intermission; it’s based on a 16th century recipe. The rest of this blog post can only spoil some miniscule amount of the great theatrical experience you’ve just lined up for yourself, so you’re excused. For the rest of you...
Equivocation is a new play by Bill Cain, wherein King James the First of England (the Sixth of Scotland) commissions Master William Shagspeare (Is this an inside joke on the authorship debate? All the known signatures of Shakespeare look rather different from each other and include different spellings. Or is it more likely that the playwright couldn’t resist making a crude joke out of the very name of the man who has had us playing ‘spot the double-entendre’ for four hundred years?) to write a ‘current events’ play about the Gunpowder Plot. If you’ve never heard of the Gunpowder Plot, I can safely assume that you never a) were an English schoolboy, nor b) saw the movie V for Vendetta. You can still correct one of those lapses. On Blu Ray, even.
Shags and his fellow actors quickly come to the conclusion that there is little dramatic potential in the official version of the Gunpowder Plot, and that there are some holes in the story as well. What follows is a play about the relationships between the artist and the state, between theatre and truth, faith and grief, and, not least, fathers and daughters. Like Shakespeare’s own history plays, the grander historical themes are all presented as intimate, family stories.
The language of Equivocation is modern, but the bits of verse written for the Gunpowder Play, where they are not cribbed from Shakespeare, sound rather as good as if they were. Part of the fun of the play is how it makes many Shakespearean footnotes come to life. Anyone who’s wondered ‘what’s so funny’ about the porter’s speech in Macbeth, welcoming an ‘Equivocator’ to hell, can read the footnote in their Riverside about how a certain Father Garnet, accused in the Gunpowder Plot, wrote a treatise called ‘On Equivocation’ and just take it on faith that it would have been funny if we’d heard it 400 years ago. But in ‘Equivocation’, Shakespeare is given a crash course on ‘How to tell the truth in difficult times’ by Father Garnet himself.
Cain’s script is one of those rare, near-perfect creations with the power to rip laughter and tears from me in equal and abundant proportions. The acting was exquisite as well. Except for Shags and his daughter Judith, the actors all played both a member of the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting company, and one or more historical characters involved in the political events transpiring outside the theatre’s walls. This allowed dizzying scene transitions that flowed from depicting historical events (interviews, trials, executions and the like) to actors struggling with portraying these same scenes on stage. This diversity of roles had the added benefit of guaranteeing that there were no small roles in the play, and so every member of the cast is one of the best actors the Oregon Shakespeare Company could provide from their talented pool.
Equivocation runs through Dec. 13th at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It was easily one of the very best plays of my 2009; make it one of yours, too.
[Photos by Jenny Graham. Actors vote their support for Sharpe remaining in the company, outnumbering Richard’s complaints. Judith (Christine Albright), Shag’s daughter, soliloquizes about her father’s plays. Shag (Anthony Heald) embraces Tom Wintour, one of the king’s prisoners (John Tufts) and has a moment of revelation and pain.]