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This play is the most deeply personal look we’ve ever had of Shakespeare the man, combined with a valuable lesson in English history, an exploration of moral and religious conflicts, and a drama about men’s lives and deaths.
Or it’s a homily about morality overlaid on a smart-alecky plot about what-ifs, with dialogue that’s as shallow as the film Shakespeare in Love. The playwright is showing off how much he knows about the subject, but he makes his points and then restates them repeatedly until the audience is exhausted 2 hours and 50 minutes later.
That’s equivocation for you — ambiguous language used to avoid committing oneself. My reaction, too, swayed back and forth during different parts of this extravagantly ambitious work. In the end, I was frustrated and annoyed by the play while admiring the acting and staging.
What really happened?
In 1605, a Roman Catholic named Guy Fawkes, was found with gunpowder in the basement of Parliament, intending to blow up the building and kill King James. Fawkes, a Jesuit priest named Henry Garnet, and their coconspirators planned to reestablish Catholicism as the state religion. Ten of the conspirators, including Fawkes and Garnet, were hanged.
Playwright Cain wrote in his preface that “the only thing we know with certainty about the event itself is that it could not possibly have occurred in the way the government claimed.” His play is what he calls “a plausible alternative.”
Cain’s Shakespeare (whom he calls Shagspeare) ponders whether to accept a commission from King James to write a play giving the king’s version of the Gunpowder Plot. Should Shag tell the truth if that would put people’s lives in danger? Is it morally right to turn in your friends to save your own neck in a time of witch hunts?
Arthur Miller explored these issues more successfully in 1953, HUAC’s heyday, in The Crucible. The issues never go away, though — Cain may have been hinting at parallels to the U.S. government’s treason allegations against Edward Snowden. Or, since Cain also is a Jesuit priest, he may just be focusing on the anti-Catholic hysteria in the era of the Tudors.
I appreciate imaginative suppositions based on real events. Itamar Moses’s Bach at Leipzig uses history inventively and humorously; other good plays include Amadeus, The Invention of Love, and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Equivocation, however, is one of the more ponderous attempts in this noble genre.
The playwright includes myriad references to Shakespeare’s plays, English history, religion, moral choices, and gossip about leading characters. For instance, some scholars have speculated that King James (the father of English-language bibles) was bisexual. Ben Akerley wrote in The X-Rated Bible that “King James' favorite male lovers were the Earl of Somerset and the Duke of Buckingham.” This script includes a reference to the king “going off with Buckingham” and later shows King James chasing an actor who’s in drag. But even if the rumors were true, the king’s sexual choices had nothing to do with the action in Equivocation. It’s a titillating distraction.
How best to please a king?
Cain’s play takes us back to 1606, the third year of the reign of King James. Shagspeare, at age 42 (played as a much older-looking man by Eric Hissom), is the most prominent playwright of his time. The king’s henchman, Robert Cecil (Dan Hodge), offers him money to write a drama that will present the king’s version of events. Shag debates the request and interviews participants to discover what really happened. Eventually he refuses the commission and writes, instead, Macbeth, centered on King James’s Scottish ancestors to curry favor with the new monarch.
As vividly directed by Terrence Nolen, the play depicts the brutal lengths to which governments will go to investigate acts of supposed treason. Equivocation also is strong in showing the comradery of members of Shag’s company, energetically played by Anthony Lawton, Ian Merrill Peakes, Sean Lally, and Dan Hodge (doubling roles).
Cain adds a family drama in which Shakespeare regrets the death at age 11 of his son Hamnet while he avoids closeness with Hamnet’s twin, Judith, played engagingly by Campbell O’Hare. This is quite touching and also makes us think about the theme of reconciliation with daughters that permeates Shakespeare’s last plays, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest.
Oddly, Equivocation barely mentions Shakespeare’s elder daughter, Susanna, and avoids the much-written-about possibility that Shakespeare himself was a Catholic. In a play centered on the hostility of the crown toward Catholics, that’s a strange avoidance.
For Naomi Orwin’s review, click here.
What, When, Where
Equivocation by Bill Cain. Terrence J. Nolen directed. Through December 13, 2015 on the Arcadia Stage at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. ardentheatre.org or 215-922-1122.
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