Friday, January 10, 2014

The Play's The Thing--Then and Now

Times Higher Education reviews The Drama of Reform: Theology and Theatricality, 1461-1553 by Tamara Atkin (reviewed by Helen Smith):

Whereas the drama of the English Renaissance is celebrated, frequently performed and a staple of school and university curricula, the plays of the English Reformation (or rather the multiple, incremental and partial reformations of the four British nations) are neglected with almost equal enthusiasm. In part, this can be explained by their unfortunate chronological position, wedged awkwardly, in stylistic as well as temporal terms, between the medieval and early modern. In part, it comes down to our lack of knowledge about where and why many of these plays were performed, despite some diligent detective work. Ultimately, though, the lack of widespread zeal for the plays may be a result of their own passionate espousal of the religious arguments that transformed personal and national identities in the middle years of the 16th century.

The Drama of Reform follows the lead of recent scholarship in embracing the complexities of reformist drama, from the polemical plays of John Bale to the likes of Jacke Jugeler, which claims to be only a “merie” reworking of Plautus, but is centrally concerned with debates concerning the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Tamara Atkin’s book concentrates on four plays, dedicating a chapter to each and identifying telling, and often precise, links between their contents and the proponents of reform. What we get rather less of, however, is a sense of how representative these plays are and how they fit alongside more traditional, orthodox drama.

And The Independent reviews the Royal Shakespeare Company theatrical adaptation of the first two novels about Thomas Cromwell written by Hilary Mantel--which have their own "theology":

One hesitates to use the phrase “a marriage made in heaven” in the vicinity of Henry VIII but that would be a fair way of describing this brilliant union between the RSC and Hilary Mantel.

The Company has just unveiled its epic six-hour stage version of her two prize-winning novels which view the English Reformation and the deadly intrigues of the Tudor court from the vantage point of Thomas Cromwell, the Putney blacksmith's son who rose to be royal fixer-in-chief.
The marathon press performance began at 1pm and, after a dinner break, concluded at 10pm. But such is the dramatic skill of the adaptation by Mike Poulton (with whom Mantel has worked closely) and the unflagging power and fascination of Jeremy Herrin's fleet, incisively acted production that, if the final instalment of the trilogy had been completed and turned into a play, I would gladly have stayed up all night.

There are inevitable losses in the transition from page to stage - from the atmospheric richness of Mantel's prose to the flashbacks to formative experiences in Cromwell's past, such as his witnessing, in boyhood, the pitiless auto-da-fe of a female heretic.

But Ben Miles is superlative at conveying the inner complexities of the man – the shrewd watchfulness, the sense of banked-down grief, the little flashes of sardonic humour. David Starkey once described Cromwell as “Alastair Campbell with an axe” but in these plays we get a thoroughly three-dimensional figure.

Beyond the pages of a book, literary or theological, the representation of personal drama on stage, comic or tragic, has an attractiveness that reaches out to another audience. Someone who would never read John Bales's theological arguments in the 16th century would learn from his plays. In the same way, Mantel's fiction translated to the stage becomes even an even more powerful representation of her characterizations of Cromwell and Thomas More, for example. That is certainly why the Society of Jesus developed a dramatic tradition in their schools, to teach their students about the art of persuasion (rhetoric) and to inculcate virtue. More on the Jesuits and drama here.

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