There is endless fascination with Shakespeare’s plays, but less so with the man himself. Playwright Bill Cain has been one of those who attempt to provide some insight by using Shakespeare (or, Shagspear, or Shag for short) as a character in a fictional story. The result, Equivocation, at Lamb’s Players Theatre through November 20, is fascinating for those who know Shakespeare’s plays well and perhaps more than a little confusing for those who do not.
Many think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright, but his career extended well past her death and into the reign of King James I, the Scottish monarch who was put on the British throne in an attempt to ensure that Catholicism would not return as the state religion.
State religion was serious business during this period. King Henry VIII started the Church of England to resolve his papal problems related to his many wives. After Henry’s death, Catholics and Protestants traded the throne, each persecuting the other in the process. Elizabeth I’s long reign put a damper on the state religion question, but there were hopes of a return to a Catholic monarch when Elizabeth died, so much so that a group of religious extremists, supposedly egged on by a charismatic priest, were caught in a plot to blow up the House of Lords, including the King and his family.
Working with these historical characters, playwright Cain imagines that Robert Cecil, the man who considers himself the power behind the throne – and a master propagandist, brings the King’s version of the conspiracy to the most eminent playwright of the leading theatre company – The King’s Men. He asks, no, orders, Shagspear to adapt the tale into a play. He offers money for this service.
Mr. Cain intends to put Shag (Robert Smyth) on the horns of a moral dilemma. He can take the money and write the play, which his company can produce and probably find popular success. But, the version he tells will be the king’s, and Shag will be associated with what will surely be seen as a self-serving lie. Or, he can refuse and be accused of sympathizing with the plotters, a position that leaves him open to censure at the very least and more likely torture as an enemy of the state. Any course seems to play into Cecil’s hand and in the process, effect a revenge that Cecil has desired since Shag modeled the character of Polonius in Hamlet after Cecil’s father, a characterization that Cecil considered to be unfavorable.
So, how do you tell the truth in dangerous times, Mr. Cain asks – several times, actually? That’s the central question, and Shag tries several ways to avoid it. He protests that he only writes historical plays about figures who are already dead, he attempts to push it off on another writer in the company, and he tries to get his Kings Men colleagues to vote down the proposal. All to no avail.
As a result, he starts to write and finds that there’s lots of holes in the king’s narrative that he can’t comfortably fill. He tries interviewing the conspirators but gets nowhere until he reaches the charismatic priest, who sets him straight about more than one thing. And so, he decides to write a play about a Scottish nobleman who is seduced by ambition, the compliments of others, and the sorcery of three witches to murder the king (and, who is, in turn, the subject of his own insurrection). All this without ever referencing directly the Gunpowder Plot.
If this sounds like a lot of play plot, be assured that there’s even more – portions of scenes from various Shakespeare plays, hints of plays yet to come, and, oh yes, there’s Shag’s daughter, Judith (Caitie Grady), who hangs around a lot, to her father’s dissatisfaction, but who is also a lynch-pin in understanding Shag’s psychology. The resulting reveal is plausible but not emotionally satisfying, however.
If you love Shakespeare and know the plays fairly well, Equivocation is a trove of riches. If not, following along might well be hard. Shag turns out to be not that all interesting of a character, despite the efforts of the estimable Mr. Smyth.
Outside of these two, four men (Francis Gercke, Ross Hellwig, Paul Eggington, and Brian Mackey) play the rest of the characters. The success of the play rests with them, and they acquit themselves valiantly on its behalf. I’d hate to see this play performed with even an iota of skill less than what these actors bring to their roles.
Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth deserves a bow as well, for pacing a long and involved story, for coaching a variety of choices for actors who quickly shift characters, for use of Sean Fanning’s multi-level scenic design and Jeanne Reith’s creative costume pieces, and for composing the original music that is performed live on stage by cellist Diana Elledge.
Audiences willing to hang in and sort through will find enough pleasure in this well-constructed and performed production. I’m afraid, though, that there will be many who will find the mental exercise to be too much work for too little reward.