SHOWING : March 17, 2011 - April 17, 2011
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Discover one of the causes of the Hundred Years' War between England and France: the claim of Prince Edward III to the French throne. In part one: Edward rescues and woos the Countess of Salisbury. Both married to other people, Edward and the Countess agree to each kill the others’ spouse, but who is fooling who and who will follow through? In part two: A young Edward (also known as the Black Prince), convinced of his rightful lineage to the throne of France, fights hard on the battlefield to win his father’s respect and the right to become King.
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Upon My Oath|
Tuesday, April 19, 2011 ||
For its second entry in its March Repertory, the New American Shakespeare Tavern goes back to the early part of the (probably) Bard’s career, with “Edward III,” an early foray into the English dynastic wars that provided the backbone of all the history plays.|
For now, there is no vying for the British throne. Edward is in complete control, and, apart from those pesky Scots, he has nothing to do but pursue his own dynastic claim to the French throne. First though, he stops for an aggressively lustful pursuit of the Countess of Salisbury, just freed from the invading Scottish King David. When he is firmly rebuffed (in probably the play’s most excitingly dramatic scene), he sublimates his passions by going to France. A series of battles later, and the French and Scottish kings are both his prisoners, and all is well with the world.
Yes, a simple synopsis, but, like with his Henry VI plays (written around the same time), Shakespeare has more on his mind than simple storytelling. He wants to do nothing less than define what it means to be noble, to be valiant, to be honest, and, frankly, to be British. To be sure, one of the reasons the authorship of the play has been questioned is the comically caricaturish image of the Scots on view – when the bulk of the canon was published, the thoroughly Scottish James I was on the throne of England, and the folio publishers definitely did not want to get on his bad side.
In spite of all the similarities in style and language with the Henry VI trilogy, and with King John, the authorship of this play was in dispute until quite recently – it’s only been since the 1990’s that it has been an accepted part of the canon (and there are still some lingering nay-sayers out there). In any case, I’m not here to enter the “Did he write it?” debate, but to step into the equally polarizing “Is it any good?” can of worms.
The short answer, is, yes, I think the play is on a par with the Henry VI plays, and is indeed much better than “King John” and even the later “Henry VIII.” It has the usual vividly-drawn characters, high-poetic language, low-brow humor, and exciting battles. And there is much discussion about honesty, about oath-keeping, about the duty owed to a king, a subject, a prisoner, an enemy.
The crux of the Countess of Salisbury scenes is the conflict between breaking an oath to a liege and breaking an oath to a spouse. When the king suborns the Countess’ father to woo on his behalf, the countess can only marvel at the ensuing corruption caused by such a betrayal:
Unnatural besiege! Woe me unhappy,
To have escap’d the danger of my foes
And to be ten times worse envir’d by friends!
Hath he no means to stain my honest blood
But to corrupt the author of my blood
To be his scandalous and vile solicitor?
No marvel, though the branches be then infected
When poison hath encompassed the root:
No marvel, though the leprous infant die,
When the stern dam envenometh the dug.
(Who other than Shakespeare could ever conceive of metaphorical “leprous infants” or “envenomed dugs?”). When the Countess’ logic fails to deter the king, she resorts to good old-fashioned [deleted by the spoiler police]! Kudos definitely to costumer Anne Carole Butler for the Countess’s thigh-holsters, and to Mary Russell’s marvelous performance in selling this scene, making the king back off without losing his esteem or patronage.
The issue of honesty and oath-keeping also comes up later in the play. The Earl of Salisbury ransoms a French prisoner by obtaining “safe passage” documents from the French Crown Prince. When the King of France threatens to execute the Earl anyway, Prince Charles gets all huffy:
I hope, your highness will not so disgrace me
And dash the virtue of my seal-at-arms:
He hath my never-broken name to show,
Character’d with this princely hand of mine;
In other words, it’s okay to kill your enemy, just don’t break your word to him. It may sound a tad foolish to our modern ears, but, to the Elizabethan mind, honor was far and above the highest virtue. As the play continues, the odd thing is, it sounds less and less foolish the more times it’s articulated, and I (at least) left with a profound respect for the virtues of honesty and honor.
As to the production, these are the sorts of plays the Tavern does best. Rousing fight scenes coupled with rousing passions, snarky asides coupled with noble pronouncements, “great men” reduced to human-size, and simplicity raised to greatness. Drew Reeves does a wonderful job as King Edward, capturing both his out-of-control descent into clumsy passion, as well as his seemingly cold but outwardly noble demeanor in the thick of battle When he refuses to send aid to his besieged son’s recue, it’s a coldly calculated move to justify the Prince’s valor, but it takes an apparent emotional toll on him.
As “Black Prince” Edward, Matt Felten is brash and young and valorous, at turns cocky and condescending towards his enemies, but, brave and stalwart in extremis. Mr. Felten turns what could have been a one-note role into a dimensional character we cheer for.
I also liked Mary Russell’s besieged Countess, William S. Murphey’s French King John , and Tony Brown’s Earl of Warwick (father to the countess). The rest of the ensemble jumps from role to rose with the Tavern’s usual alacrity and skill, and keep all the many players distinct and compelling.
So, in the final analysis, this was a very good production of an unknown and rarely performed play. It bears a lot of the same shortcomings as some of Shakespeare’s other early work, but it also contains many moments of greatness. It’s a welcome addition to the canon, and I hope it finds its way into the regular repertory of this company and others.
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com)
After Note: This is a difficult text to track down. Here’s a free on-line version:
Or, here’s a published facsimile of the original Anonymous 1596 Publication:
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All’s not fair in love and war|
|by Lady Mac
Thursday, March 31, 2011 ||
First of all, congratulations to the New American Shakespeare Tavern for accomplishing the significant feat of performing all of Shakespeare’s plays. (Asterisk alert: A late-breaking addition to the sometimes-fluid listing of Shakespeare plays will be performed – just in case – later this year. But that’s for another day.) It’s commendable that the Tavern showed the bravery and commitment to its artistic vision to forgo the financial comfort of packed houses for the Bard’s “greatest hits” in order to stage these obscure plays for comparatively sparse audiences. (There were plenty of seats to be had when I saw this and “Two Noble Kinsmen.”) This goal and the accomplishing thereof served the dual purpose of adding a feather to the Tavern’s cap and giving theater/literature lovers a rare opportunity to complete their own Shakespeare punch cards. |
Now, on to “Edward III.” Basically, this play is about a king’s honor lost and regained, a son’s coming of age via battle, codes of honor … and the English kicking the derrieres of some favorite nemeses. The Scottish pose a brief threat and are quickly dispatched, largely because they are (according to Shakespeare) complete buffoons. (You may want to think twice before bringing your cousin Hamish to see the show.) The French are the trash-talking foes for the bulk of the play and are portrayed in the typical sneering fashion. (Definitely don’t bring your cousin Francois.) If you happen to be an Anglophile, though, you’re all set. God save the queen – er, king!
In “Edward III,” all is not fair in either love or war. The first half deals with the former, and the second half focuses on the latter. The “love” half puts the king’s honor and fidelity to the test when he falls for a lovely woman whom he and his army have just rescued from the aforementioned Scottish buffoons (Matt Nitchie and Paul Hester are hilarious, if politically incorrect, as the thick-brogued clowns). Poor Mary Russell: Not long ago she was the comely young Anne Boleyn, whose love is demanded by the married king. Now, here she is again – the comely young Countess of Salisbury, whose love is demanded by the married king. Not to give too much away, but her fate turns out a lot better than Boleyn’s (for one thing, her head stays attached), and she is probably the most interesting and heroic character (definitely my favorite in the play, anyway). She holds her own and uses her intellect as effectively as her charm. (She even gets in on a little of the widespread trash talk in the play, as she gloats to her Scottish captors when it becomes clear that their defeat is imminent.)
It’s hard to become reinvested in the king after the first act, but the audience is supposed to “forgive and forget” his moral shortcomings and break out the pom-poms to cheer him on against the nasty French. This is a tough call, especially in a scene late in the play that asks the audience to buy his love for and devotion to his wife. (OK, so maybe it’s a little harder for FEMALE audience members to bury the hatchet at that point.) Fortunately, after a few early moments in which you can kind of see the French king’s point of view, he transforms into such a sniveling and borderline-psychotic wretch (played perfectly by Bill Murphey, a relative newcomer to the Tavern who is making quite a splash) that Edward seems downright angelic by comparison. Also, the very-serious and stuffed-to-the-gills-with-honor son of the king, Edward the prince of Wales (Matt Felten), is quite easy to root for.
In fact, the prince is far more compelling than his father, and the scenes that center on him and the other characters are the best in the play. It may be named “Edward III,” but the highlights of it are the moments that focus on everyone else. This is not a criticism of Drew Reeves’ performance, which is fine; it’s a criticism of the character, who is kind of irritating, often hypocritical, frequently baffling and sometimes just a bit boring. One of the finest scenes is a father/son-type exchange between the prince and Lord Audley (played with quiet nobility by John Curran), in which they discuss the battlefield predicaments that seem to spell their doom and then delve poetically into the nature of life and death. The language and emotion in this scene are touching and memorable, and it builds the framework for later scenes that demonstrate the prince’s devotion to Lord Audley.
So the second half of the play is the standard battle stuff of the other history plays, with a few subplots involving, again, honor thrown in. Will the French prisoner keep his word to return to captivity if he fails in his mission? Will the French prince keep his word to grant liberty to a passing-through Englishman? The overwhelmingly pro-English/anti-French play does grant the French some opportunities for humanity and decency with these side stories. It is nice, actually, to see a few shades of gray in the villains.
The actors are, overall, terrific in this play and do their best to make it seem puzzling that “Edward III” is never produced. However, at least at the performance I attended, there sometimes was too much speed and not enough enunciation, leading to blurred and indistinguishable lines, particularly during highly impassioned moments. Hopefully they have slowed down some as the play has progressed. Since the audience probably just has one shot at seeing this play performed, it would be good if it comes across loud and clear.
The plot may not be groundbreaking, but “Edward III” is still very much worth seeing. After watching it, you’ll be able to leap into the fray of debate over whether Shakespeare did indeed write this play – and, if so, whether he acted alone. And, if you decide that this is bona fide Shakespeare, that’s one more punch for your Bard card that you’re not likely to get anywhere else anytime soon.
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by David Shire (music), Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics)