School play productions always start with a severe handicap, I feel: not in so far as audiences demand too much of them, rather that they demand too little. We settle down, prepared to "forgive" the production in a charitably patronising sort of way, with the net result that we never take it seriously. It is some measure of the success of this production that we were forced to take it seriously.
First of all, it made me realise, I had never done so before, just how good a play this really is; certainly it's a chronicle play "concerned to recreate history with as few alterations of fact as possible", and concerned "to show how disunity and selfishness permeated and destroyed a whole society" (to quote the programme notes), but it's a chronicle play with an astonishing ing power to string together all the strands of civil unrest, gangsterism, the growing strength of the commons and the bourgeoisie and the decline of the golden age of mediaeval England, into a coherent, turbulent and impressive unity of Machiavellian setpieces punctuated by scenes of vivid discord. The unity is not in the plot but in the textures and rhythms of the play which the plot is made to subserve.
And it was in recognition of this, together with the astonishingly-competent handling of huge areas of pretty volatile material, that the success of this production lay. At first it was the set pieces that were so impressive - the meetings of weak king and greedy barons. I remember particularly the cold concentration of Warwick (C.B. Wilson), the first to grip the attention of the audience to focus on the play, the stony ruthlessness of York (K.B. Sykes), the aging cynicism of Salisbury (M. Ainsworth) and the Renaissance villainy of Cardinal Beaufort (T.C. Ramsden) - a talented if fitful portrait. Then those magnificently-handled 'difficult' scenes: the one where York 'proves' to Warwick and Salisbury his right to the throne; or the one where Machiavellian Queen and barons unite to destroy the absent Humphrey (a fine piece of varied acting by J.H. Taylor), against the ineffectual, head-hanging king (C. R. Ellins) - whose mannerisms at first seemed specious, only to persist until I was at last completely convinced by them. Mr. Axford drew from these scenes the maximum subtlety and intensity, and in them the squabbling barons, so apparently undifferentiated when reading the play, became highly individual, credible human beings.
Yet in this, the very strength of the production, lay for me its one weakness: by bringing his nobles so vividly to life, Mr. Axford had distorted, to some extent, the real impact of the play.
I only say this because the cast handled the blank verse so well that it made me think, for the first time, carefully about what was being said, and it seemed to me that there were inconsistencies, undigested speeches and episodes here and there, (I speak, for example of the killing of Jack Cade and what ensued, of the scene with Simpcox, and the witch-craft scene). In themselves, these were handled beautifully, but they seemed in some way or another to obtrude, to be alien to the texture of the play, not part of its fundamental unity. I was forced then to go back to the play and re-read it.
In reading the play I saw the characters Mr. Axford had caused to take on such vivid new life go back into their box; they seemed puppet-like once again; the vividly-enacted scenes I have just mentioned barely lifted their profiles above the play's surface. And one felt that the protagonist of this play is really history itself; the characters haunting the stage are the puppets of history, not in themselves the agents of historical change. After all, their squabbling for the crown (which Henry would so willingly resign) will bring them no happiness - common-sense must tell them that; but they fight and intrigue compulsively because their security in some peculiar way has suddenly been threatened and the only way out that they can see is to be top dog. Yet their machinations are futile, pathetic and for this reason they command our sympathy - even the worst of them as they go to their deaths. York in his long speech at the end of Act III, Scene I almost seems intuitively to understand this "mad-bred-flaw" at work in the state. The common people are much clearer about the whole thing -
Holland - Well, I say it was never merry world in England, since gentlemen came up.
Bevis - Oh miserable age! Virtue is not regarded in handicraftsmen.
And so we see that it is out of the death of "merry England" of mediaeval times, under the impact of emergent Capitalism, threatening the balance of power of the great aristocratic families, together with the rise to significance of the common people, that such great turbulence arises. All are doomed - Suffolk, Humphrey, Margaret, Cade - even York, caught in the toils of historical change.
The strengths and weakness of the production were summed up by Act IV where Cade (that earthy, poetic, vital demagogue - splendidly portrayed by G.C. Scott, who has a fine stage presence) and his ragged revolutionaries, stormed back and forth across the stage and through the audience. It was a most colourful masterly realisation of the turbulent anarchy of the times. Yet this revolution, with all its confused thinking, its incipient totalitarianism, offers - as we see from the words of Cade - an acceptable and possible alternative to the power struggle of the great families, and the gradual dominance through trade and parliament of the bourgeoisie: "all the realm shall be in common", "there shall be no money, all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord." It was really, of course, in part, a longing for the `ancient freedoms' of a lost golden age. Yet this alternative wasn't stressed nearly enough; Cade was made to seem too earthy, too humorous, not idealistic enough. In the same way the irony of Iden's killing of Cade (he is made a knight as a reward, only to lose the peace of mind he prizes so dearly, in the civil war: surely the implication is that no one can escape these enormous changes by hiding away and cultivating his own garden?) is quite missing. In the same way the whorishness of Simpcox's wife, acted with a delicious sluttishness by Glenys France, was a little overdone, and the "we did it for pure need" not stressed nearly enough.
It was the failure to fuse the apparently self-contradictory elements in the play that worried me in Margaret (Karen Stafford) and Suffolk (M.J. Elliott). Karen Stafford has a fine, commanding figure and voice, and suggested well the authoritative Machiavellianism of the Queen, but her love-making had none of the Lucrezia Borgia lustfulness that is the compensatory mechanism of Shakespeare's political women.
It was too tender, just as Suffolk was not nearly poisonous enough, though M.J. Elliott captured his fawning subtlety rather well. Jane Bradley, created well, in face and speech, the deadliness, ambition and sneaking licentiousness of a Renaissance queen, though of course had nothing like as difficult a task as Karen Stafford's.
When the programme states that Shakespeare "is concerned to recreate history with as few alterations of fact as possible", that only begs several very big questions: what is history? Did "disunity and selfishness" destroy a "whole society*, or was that society destroyed by its own internal contradictions? And was the disunity and selfishness an effect rather than a cause? Surely there is the hand here, not just of an ironic chronicler (wonderfully parodied by J. C. Smith in the character of Edward Hall), but of a highly intelligent political theorist - well versed in the 'real-politik' of Machiavelli's "Il Principe".
Still, these are carping criticisms in face of the fine achievement of this King Edward's production which, if it hadn't been so good, would never have raised these doubts in my mind at all. It would be impossible to do justice to that most compelling set and lighting plot, a convincing wardrobe and use of make-up and such competent stage-management. Suffice to say that these things, and the excellent performance of the small orchestra, allowed us completely to forget the inconvenient hall in which the whole thing was staged.
Lady Mabel College of Education.
The Junior Play has now become an established feature of the School calendar, bringing eager anticipation to its supporters and blood, sweat and tears to participants and producers for weeks in advance. Connoisseurs can be heard comparing this year's vintage with its predecessors - the classic '65, the full, fruity '66. Most important, a generation of boys is coming up the School with experience of disciplined acting to a high standard. We must be immensely grateful to all those whose efforts so enrich the School.
Pilgrim's Progress is not an obviously easy choice for dramatic purposes. The "plot" is too familiar and simple to provide much excitement. The large number of fleeting characters, if valuable for talent-hunting, presents daunting problems of production. The constant changes of scene and attendant supernatural effects, achieved with dreamlike ease in Bunyan's narrative, would demand imaginative use of the most sophisticated stage, let alone our austere arena. Much of the charm of the original work lies in Bunyan's unpretentious style and diction. But his dialogue is apt to lapse into sermon, and even in its simpler uses the language of the seventeenth century is not easily mastered by the modern ear or tongue.
It speaks a great deal for this production that we were hardly aware of these difficulties. The producer's adaptation of David Holbrook's version provided a drastically shortened and simplified text, whose rather quaint mixture of ancient and modern idiom was at least readily understood. Less satisfactory, perhaps, were the attempts to solve those intractable problems of staging and lighting. The plain set, with few but versatile topographical features, was inevitable and effective. This left much to the suggestion of the actors and the imagination of the audience, and it may be unfair to cast the blame more on the one side than the other if the Slough of Despond did not quite live up to Bunyan's "very miry Slough", or if the appearance of the Angels seemed less than heaven-sent, or the roaring' of lions (off) provoked more mirth than terror in the auditorium. More seriously it seemed a pity that the Valley of the Shadow of Death appeared to offer nothing more terrible than a little summer lightning. Bunyan's description - not to mention Cruickshank's illustration - of this place would suggest more substantial horrors.
These things, however, were incidental to the main business of the play, not as a poem or a spectacle, but as a drama. The unity and simplicity of theme proved after all to have some advantage in supplying a backbone amidst the many skilfully contrived entrances and exits. A great deal of credit must be given to D.A. Plews, whose Christian made the most of all his near-fatal lapses from the Way, but remained credibly full of good intentions and a sort of dazed vision to the end. He has the natural actor's essential gift of throwing himself wholly into a part - never more effectively than in his fainting fall after vanquishing Apollyon! - and his unflagging attention not only to his own part but to those around him throughout the evening created a memorable tour de force.
It would be impossible to give `credits' to all those involved in this production. But certain characters and moments stand out as worthy of recall. R.A. Scott's Talkative exploited a rich vein of comic relief - whether self-parody or based on merciless observation one dare not guess. Certainly he gave us the creepiest of all possible 'creeps', of the kind one meets on long journeys in nightmares.
Christian's chief companions on the Way lacked his obvious flair, but showed a good sense of the meaning of their parts. M. W. Hudson's Faithful commanded the respect due to a born martyr, while D. G. Black suggested well that innocence of eye and heart which brought Hopeful an easier passage than the doubt-riven Christian. On a smaller scale R.S. Ruttle's Timorous was patently scared out of his wits, from panting entry to weak-kneed parting line " Better you than me, mate; I don't fancy it!" (a fair sample of Mr. Wood's telling use of modern idiom to point the allegory). Watchful (P.J. Marshall) brought an air of calm authority to the scene on his several appearances, while M.J. Harrison's Byends, in red satin and lace trimmings, pouted and sniffed with egregious elegance. Even the small part of Mr. Save All caught the eye in the confident hands of D. Jardine Smith.
Virtue may win in the end, but vice is, alas, more memorable. Perhaps, too, in the way of human nature, it comes more easily to the actor - of any age! So it is no reflection on the gallant heroes of this tale that the Vanity Fair and Trial scenes remain most vividly in our minds. The terrifying crescendo of hysteria leading up to the arrest of Christian and Faithful and the triumph of vicious apathy and prejudice, were powerfully produced and acted. Mr.Pickthank (C.S. Redfern), in a lush piece of Carnaby Street, showed a quite unnerving gift for cold nastiness, supported by a sneering Envy (J.M. Drought) and strident Superstition (G.J. Reynolds). Judge Hategood (E.M.Bell) presided over the court with corrupt incompetence and a cough which eloquently reflected a life-time of dissipation and debauchery. To complete the picture sat the jury, a harmless enough looking bunch, absorbed in sleep or a variety of aimless diversions, and oblivious to everything in the proceedings except the most direct appeals to their greed and self-interest. Where does Bunyan's finger point today?
Compared with these scenes Giant Despair (R.S. Sandford) and his consort Diffidence (D.J. Chamberlin) provided something like knockabout farce. The Giant was surprisingly weedy - surely the feeble utterances should have come from a more imposing physique? Diffidence made up fully for whatever Despair lacked in presence. There was an incongruous sense that Lady Macbeth had strayed into the land of Jack and the Beanstalk, but it was certainly a powerful interpretation in its way.
It remains to be said that this was certainly a very worthwhile production, in which there was something to admire in every department. The standard of audibility was high throughout and there were few lapses of memory. If there were the usual problems of amateur acting - where to put hands, how to avoid irritating mannerisms of voice or gesture, and often simply how to stand still - this is a measure of the value of such experience for the boys involved. We look forward to seeing many of them building on this experience to enlarge their talents in School plays in the years to come. Only then will the full extent of our debt to Mr. Wood, his assistant producer, Mr. C.I. Cook, and their excellent team of helpers, become clear.