Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

A guest post by LH Member Catharine Arnold. This article was previously published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of December 2014.

Playwright Ben Jonson [1572-1637], scholar of Westminster School, soldier and one time bricklayer, a trade he hated, is best known for his satires Bartholomew Fair and Volpone. As a dramatist, Jonson was Shakespeare’s greatest rival, and he was fortunate to survive the knockabout world of the London stage, as this anecdote illustrates.

By 1598, Ben Jonson’s dramatic talents ensured that he was much valued by his acting company, the Admiral’s Men, which performed at the Rose. While Francis Meres recorded that Jonson was considered ‘the best for tragedy’, Jonson’s satirical skills were also in the ascendant and he would see a positive reception for his comedy, Every Man in His Humour. This was in spite of the debacle of his previous play, The Isle of Dogs, a political lampoon regarded as so contentious by the authorities that the theatre was raided on the first night and Jonson and his comrades thrown into jail. However, as Jonson’s star rose, so another actor’s reputation sank. Gabriel Spenser, Jonson’s cellmate in the Marshalsea after the disastrous production of The Isle of Dogs had joined him in the Admiral’s Men but a bitter feud had developed between the pair, and plummeted to new depths over the following year. As the 26-year-old Jonson scaled the professional heights, the unpopular Spenser sank deeper into drink and developed an implacable hatred of Jonson. Unpopular among the actors, Spenser had a reputation as a troublemaker, and worse.

Two years earlier, on 3 December, 1596, Spenser had been present at the house of Richard East, along with a man named James Feake, between five and six in the afternoon. According to witnesses ‘insulting words had passed’ between Spenser and Feake. Feake had seized a copper candlestick which he threatened to throw at Spenser, whereupon Spenser seized his sword and stabbed Feake in the right eye, penetrating the brain and inflicting a mortal wound. Poor Feake ‘languished and lived in languor at Holywell Street’ for three days before he died. Despite being accused of murder, Spenser was not executed, or required to forfeit any goods. Perhaps the three days between the fight and Feake’s death gave Spenser the opportunity to assemble friendly witnesses to testify that Feake had provoked him. It was a violent age and men such as Spenser did not hesitate to resort to their weapons if the opportunity demanded it. But Nemesis came for Gabriel Spenser two years later.

On the evening of 22 September 1598, Ben Jonson encountered Spenser in Hoxton Fields in Shoreditch, just around the corner from the Curtain Theatre. The men quarrelled and Spenser challenged Jonson to a duel. Fighting came naturally to both men. Jonson had been a soldier, but as an actor Spenser had trained for fight scenes. All Englishmen had the right to bear arms, and fencing was regarded as a vital accomplishment and an extension of one’s masculinity, as indicated in these lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I bruised my shin th’ other day with playing at sword and dagger with a master of fence.’ Elizabethan youths flocked to the fencing schools, and swordplay was an everyday occurrence in Elizabethan London, part of the throbbing violent pulse of the times.

ben johnson duel

Fighting for his life. Sword fighting in the late Tudor style. Jonson’s weapon is considerably shorter than that of his assailant, Gabriel Spenser.

So here stood Jonson, the provoked, and Spenser, the provoker, with weapons drawn, about to fight to the death. The protagonists were equally matched in terms of skill, but as the younger man, Jonson had the advantage. The fight between Jonson and Spenser must have been as theatrical as any performed on stage. Once violence is imaginatively re-created, it gains its own momentum. Did this skirmish start as a drunken taunt, a play-fight between two hot-headed hell-raisers? In terms of weapons, it was scarcely a fair fight. Spenser’s sword was ten inches longer and it was only the fact that Spenser had been drinking all day that gave Jonson the advantage. As Spenser staggered about waving his sword, Jonson swiped back at him and, within minutes, Spenser was dead at his feet.

Although he maintained that Spenser had struck first, wounding him in the arm, Jonson was charged with ‘feloniously and wilfully’ slaying Gabriel Spenser’ with ‘a certain sword of iron and steel called a rapier, of the price of three shillings, which he then and there had and held drawn in his right hand.’ According to witnesses, Jonson inflicted a six inch wound to Spenser’s right side which killed him instantly. Despite claiming to have been acting in self-defence, Jonson was arrested and taken to Newgate, charged with murder. For all his genius, it looked as if Jonson’s final performance was to be upon the scaffold at Tyburn. But Jonson had one trump card left. As a former pupil at Westminster School, he possessed one item which nobody could take away from him, and that was his education. Jonson’s life was saved by a legal loophole which permitted the literate man to escape sentence ‘by benefit of clergy’ on the grounds that any man with a working knowledge of Latin was a cleric and therefore immune to secular law. The ‘Benefit of Clergy’ posed no difficulty for Jonson, who was required to do nothing more than recite an extract from Psalm 51 which began Miserere Mei or ‘Have mercy upon me, O Lord.’ This stratagem saved so many prisoners from the gallows that it became known as ‘the neck verse’. Jonson emerged from Newgate with an ‘x’ branded on his thumb to prevent him claiming benefit of clergy a second time. This was a lasting reminder of his imprisonment, but he had at least escaped with his life.

Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, was horrified by this turn of events. On 26 September 1598, he wrote: ‘I have lost one of my company, which hurteth me greatly, that is Gabriel, for he is slain in Hogsden Fields by the hands of Benjamin Jonson, bricklayer.’ Jonson, no doubt, would have been hurteth greatly to be referred to as a bricklayer, the trade which he so despised.


Read Full Post »

Last week I gave St Paul’s Covent Garden a proper visit for the first time. The church was designed by Inigo Jones, having been commissioned by the Duke of Bedford, who told him to keep it simple. He wanted to keep costs down, so instructed the architect it should be no more than a barn, to which Jones replied: “Then you shall have the handsomest barn in England.” And so it is.


It is known as the Actors’ Church and once inside you’ll see on all walls, nooks and crannies, commemorative plaques and memorials to notable thespians of the past. This one, to Charles Macklin, immediately caught my attention.


Just look at that carving of a theatrical mask with a knife penetrating the left eye. Very gruesome you may think, and you’d be right. This must allude to the true tale of the killing by Macklin of a fellow actor Thomas Hallam by fatally wounding him through the eye with his cane. The violent dispute – apparently over a wig – took place backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Macklin defended himself in court and was convicted of accidental manslaughter, resulting in being branded with a cold iron.

Although his actual birthdate is unclear, Charles Macklin (c1690 – 1797) was born in Ulster and enjoyed an extraordinarily long life for his or any other era. A larger-than-life character, he became a leading Shakespearean actor on the London stage as well as writing and producing dramas of his own.

Based primarily at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (with whom he was constantly in dispute), he made his name through the realistic portrayal of Shakespearean drama, most famously in his depiction of Shylock. This was a radical transformation, for the first time making these plays as something we would recognise today. Audiences loved it.

He set up an acting school, mentoring among others David Garrick who then took Shakespeare to yet another level again in the decades to come. Lessons were given both at his home and in the upstairs room of the Bedford coffee house where Macklin would also be found expounding cantakerously to all and sundry. Essentially, he had founded London’s first drama academy.


Charles Macklin in later life, by John Opie

These are just the basics.
Further reading.
Wikipedia is a pretty good start, here.
My first introduction to him was in Mr Foote’s Other Leg (2012) by Ian Kelly, pp90 and ff. Excellent further detail, especially on the coffee shop scene and drama school.

More images of St Paul’s, Covent Garden in our Flickr space, here.



Read Full Post »

©NOBBY CLARK +44(0)7941-515770 +44(0)20-7274-2105 nobby@nobbyclark.co.ukVirtually every time I ask someone if they’ve heard about the new play Mr Foote’s Other Leg, most say: “Is that about Michael Foot?” Deep breath. No, it’s about the eighteenth century playwright, satirist, actor, theatre owner and impresario Samuel Foote. In his day, he was massive: one of the most famous men in London, the equal of Garrick. But the great news is that – largely thanks to historian Ian Kelly – Foote is emerging triumphant from the 21st Century shadows. First there was Kelly’s biography of 2012, then his play which has just ended its sold-out run at the Hampstead Theatre.

However, the biggest boost to the old Georgian trouper was the play’s transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket on Wednesday for a limited run as we reported recently. The significance of this cannot be overstated, for this was Foote’s own playhouse and the royal warrant was granted to him personally. Samuel Foote has come home.

But what about the play itself?

It is very funny. It has to be, because Foote himself was the funniest man in London. From the opening scene with Frank Barber and Mrs Garner rifling through John Hunter’s laboratory, the audience is roaring and this continues throughout. There are constant witty asides aimed at luminaries such as Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and in particular, Handel – celebrities one and all on the London scene. But this being Georgian London, Handel and Germans in general draw most of the fire, reflecting a casual xenophobia which today is practically illegal.

As a whole the play covers the trajectory of Foote’s professional life starting as new boy from Cornwall at Charles Macklin’s informal acting academy (a brilliant ensemble scene) through the toast of Georgian London to life-threatening accident, mental illness, scandal and ignominy. As the play progresses, so too does the comedy darken and the scenes become charged with sadness, not just for Foote, but those around him too. For his is loved. The transformation of mood is skillfully paced.

Charles Macklin's acting lesson.

Charles Macklin’s acting lesson.

Kelly’s aforementioned book is deeply researched and scrupulously delivered. This is not an imperative with drama, so he takes liberties which don’t affect the gist of the story one bit but add much colour (literally in the case of Frank Barber who was Samuel Johnson’s black butler, not Foote’s) and help to keep the audience more closely connected. The surgeon John Hunter, though well enough acquainted with Foote, did not actually perform the amputation of the actor’s leg. Benjamin Franklin – resident in London for some sixteen years – didn’t loom large in Foote’s world, but here he is, talking frequently direct to the audience in a sort of chorus role (a neat touch is whenever Franklin is on stage we hear the eerie sound of the daft musical instrument he invented – the glass armonica). And so on.

All the perfomances are wonderful with special mentions to Jenny Galloway as Mrs Garner (hilarious) and Dervla Kirwan as Peg Woofington (hilarious and tragic, both). But what makes this play really tick is the outstanding performance of Simon Russell Beale. He looks just like Foote, he has taken possession of Foote and Foote in turn possesses him. He takes the funny bits, the poignant bits, the heartbreaking bits and makes them sing. Great, great acting.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg is written by Ian Kelly, directed by Richard Eyre and will run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for 12 weeks.

All images ©Nobby Clark.

The operation. Gasps from the audience!

The operation. Gasps from the audience!

©NOBBY CLARK +44(0)7941-515770 +44(0)20-7274-2105 nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

Garrick, Foote and Woofington.

Read Full Post »

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archivesThe name of a new exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives.

As an article in our current Members’ newsletter points out, Shakespeare is not as widely celebrated in the town of his trade as one might expect. You have to search hard for places touched by him. A great example is the spot where he bought a property in Blackfriars – whether to live in or to rent out is not known. The deed which records this sale is the prize document in the exhibition. It bears the Bard’s signature, one of only six known to exist worldwide.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

There are many other objects in the show, including other official documents, correspondence, prints, playbills, programmes, maps. Nor is it in any way restricted to Shakespeares’s own time, far from it. We celebrate many historical luvvies from Richard Burbage down to Sir Laurence Olivier. As you might expect, Hogarth’s famous engraving of his good friend David Garrick doing Richard III is featured.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

We get the story of Shakespeare’s Globe including a beautiful model from 1951 when its modern photocopy was possibly still a glint in Sam Wannamaker’s eye. You like maps? There are some near contemporary beauties on the wall including the Norden map from 1593. The original – in a book – is about nine inches wide. The LMA have scanned it at massive resolution and blown it up to about six feet wide, so you can appreciate better the London topography at the back end of the sixteenth century. Such a boon.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

In addition to all this, there are four smallish audio visual displays. Except without the “audio”, just the visual (what’s that called?). Anyway, they use subtitles. Hoorah, so much more civilised than having booming displays causing noise pollution when you’re trying to enjoy displays. Museums, take note. My favourite was the one about contemporary and subsequent pubs with Shakespearean connections. There’s much about the Mermaid near Cheapside, of course (long gone), but loads more fascinating facts. How many pubs in London today bear Shakepeare’s moniker? Can you name them?

If you’ve read my recent posts about the Office of Works and Royal Mint shows, you’ll know I’m a great fan of smaller exhibitions. Typically, they’ll take you about an hour or so to do properly, and you’ll leave feeling educated and entertained rather than overwhelmed. Shakespeare and London at the LMA is another perfect example. It opens tomorrow and runs until 26th September. Entry is free, don’t miss it.

More information.

shakespeare in london, london metropolitan archives

Read Full Post »

Fallen In Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn, by Joanna Carrick, showing at the Tower of London.

A Guest Post by London Historians Member, Lissa Chapman

fallen in love tower of london anne boleyn

The Boleyn brand has never been more popular: novels, television series, conferences, a dozen Twitter users jostling for the name @AnneBoleyn – surely the perfume and a range of lingerie called “the most happy” can’t be far behind. It’s hardly surprising. Anne Boleyn was a celebrity (yes, they did have them in the sixteenth century), a whore or a religious heroine – delete according to taste – in her own lifetime, and her legendary status is unlikely to fade. She is one of the historical figures whose significance is in the eye, and often the heart, of the beholder.

So a play about her, staged within yards of the place of her violent death, has to be a winner. But it isn’t clear if “Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn” is exactly a play. Supported by the Heritage (not the Arts) Lottery Fund and staged in association with Historic Royal Palaces, this project seemed to me to belong in the sometimes uncertain ground between theatre and live interpretation. It is both a strength and a weakness of the piece that it is written with great integrity, firmly based on primary source material. It also avoids the vulgarities of sixth fingers, witchcraft and serial shagging.

The theme is the intense bond between Anne Boleyn and her younger brother George – the two were of course convicted, among other things, of incest with each other. The premise of the piece is that their love was the central relationship in both their lives. The action spans nearly twenty years, starting at the time of the Field of the Cloth of Gold when the siblings were in their teens, and continuing until their execution; each scene is a self-contained set piece, with the two characters meeting to plan, rejoice, grieve or comment.

Emma Connell as Anne and Scott Ellis as George, both in their twenties, were convincing in the early scenes; each was able to convey the vitality and insatiable ambition of the pair, and their interdependence against the world, along with the febrile charm that must have characterised the real Boleyns.. It was as they were asked to age, to occupy a larger place in that world and to become more formidable that the difficulties began. These were partly inherent in the writing which, as the characters became public property, took more and more the form of paraphrased chunks of source material (relying on the accuracy of the reports of Eustace Chapuys a little too often for my particular taste). And as the Boleyns became significant and visible to the world at large, the limitations of the two-hander became more evident. Attempts were made to suggest the influence of others, in particular the king, but neither the danger and watchfulness of court life nor the dangerousness of the characters themselves became manifest.

fallen in love tower of london anne boleyn

It is worth noting that this production represents a huge ask of its cast and crew. The 9pm performance I attended was the third of that day – an exhausting prospect for a show with an 85-minute running time. The choice of the New Armouries as the setting was a disappointment, as it is one of the least atmospheric parts of the Tower, although the practicality in terms of lighting and comfort were evident. And the costumes, although they would have been acceptable in a larger space, were not of sufficient quality to bear the close scrutiny they receive from an audience only a few feet from the action.

Despite all this, however, this is a serious and thoughtful piece of writing. It would be interesting to revisit the subject using a larger cast of characters and perhaps with live rather than recorded music. Yet – secret heart? Walking through the dark precincts of the Tower on a night in May seemed to me to offer a greater sense of connection with Anne Boleyn than any play ever could. Perhaps that is as it should be.


Fallen In Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn, by Joanna Carrick, runs until 16 June. There are three performances most days, ticket prices £27 – £32. Concessions available, including 10% discount to London Historians Members.

More information here.
Booking here.

Read Full Post »

A guest post by LH Member Lissa Chapman.

baited hooks all hallows in the towerNo, you’re not going to meet Henry VIII.   Or Anne Boleyn.   Not even Thomas Cromwell, or Thomas Wyatt who provided the title..   But you might get to talk to someone who saw The Lady once, and someone else who is hoping to supply her with silk, and someone else again who knows her initial is being painted onto the Royal barge.   Most certainly you’ll meet someone who wants your money – for the king’s latest gift, you understand.   And you’ll need to have a good story ready for what you’re going to say when you’re asked to take the Oath of Supremacy.

And that’s how we teach history to London nine-year-olds.   We spent most of March in 1533 or somewhere near it – us and nearly 500 Tower Hamlets and Hackney children.   It’s a project that’s become a habit – 16,000 participants so far, and still counting.   The children come into the past time with us, encountering people and dilemmas of a time when news travels by decree and rumour, nine-year-olds are quite old enough both to work for a living and to be hanged, and hunger is routine.   It is of course a time when political and religious change is happening at dizzying speed.

The plays are specially researched, and are part scripted, part devised so the action is slightly different every day.   Everything that happens either did happen, or could have happened at the church of All Hallows by the Tower in the Lent of 1533, when London was rife with rumours of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn but it might be dangerous to mention it, and fatal to criticise it.   Characters include a barmaid who has become dangerously involved in the New Learning, her childhood friend who has become one of the Lord Mayor’s enforcers and a court lady with a terrible decision to make.   The children become Londoners of different degrees – some from families about to be asked to contribute to the king’s latest “present”, others already part of the working world.

baited hooks all hallows in the tower

baited hooks all hallows in the tower

baited hooks all hallows in the tower

baited hooks all hallows in the tower

During the action groups of participants are part of a sequence of scenes taking place in different parts of the church.   All Hallows, like other churches at the time, functioned as a shopping centre, meeting place and informal law court as well as a house of prayer.   During our initial research for the project we discovered both that the church wardens owned an extensive property portfolio at this time, including a pub called the Dolphin, and that they, like many others, made money by hiring out areas of the church to local shopkeepers.  So the south aisle gains a snack-bar, a silk merchant looking for a suitable place to trade and one of the many recorded altars to individual saints reappears.   The day finishes with taster sessions of Tudor music and dance, and the opportunity to write (with a quill pen) to Henry VIII to try to persuade him to be forbearing to Londoners.

Children are routinely angered, usually excited, occasionally bemused, but rarely left indifferent to the concerns of 500 years ago.   Often they learn a great many historical facts, but by a process akin to osmosis.   One teacher commented recently that “it was wonderful to see the children working so hard without realising they were doing so”.

And it’s Boudicca’s revolt in November…

For more details and pictures, please visit www.clioscompany.co.uk

Read Full Post »

Review: 55 Days, Hampstead Theatre.

55 days hamsptead theatreThe 55 days are those between the establishment of the Rump Parliament and the regicide of Charles I on 30 January 1649. As far as I can tell, apart from the meeting between Cromwell and Charles I on the eve of his trial (acknowledged as being fictitious in the programme), most of the history stacks up, so metaphorical liberties have not been taken. Not only that, the production deftly explains the issues and the dilemmas facing the king’s enemies without being overtly didactic or preachy.  Hence, if you’re a bit vague on how it was we came to overthrow and execute our king, this is a very entertaining way to find out.

The play takes a conventional pro-Parliament position, and Cromwell’s part is extremely sympathetic. But unless you’re a fervent Charles-as-martyr advocate, it’s not much the worse for that. The leading players in the drama are also characterised conventionally. And they’ve been cleverly chosen in a way so as to demonstrate the various positions and potential courses of actions by Parliamentary factions. Charles Stuart the king is narrow-minded, aloof, sneaky, intransigent. John Lilburne is a dyed-in-the-wool, goggle-eyed, dangerous extremist; Thomas Fairfax is avuncular, kindly and moderate. And Cromwell, as mentioned, is portrayed as a sort of wise super-hero with the world on his shoulders and everybody else’s problems to solve. This is the only real criticism I have. As we know, like most of his colleagues, he was no democrat, but this was only hinted at. His faults need to be writ large too in order to counterbalance Charles, to prevent him descending into panto-villainy. But on the plus side, Cromwell was shown not to be a prig either which, as far as I know, has substance.

The second half of the production is mainly dedicated to the trial. 18 “commissioners” cobbled together to stand judgement over the king. Illegally. And yes, the play did acknowledge this quite clearly, mainly from the lips of the king himself. Charles is somewhat transformed from the delusional, dismissive dandy of Act 1 into an imperious, courtroom tough and not entirely without a case, a case he presented strongly, putting his enemies into a bit of a lather, albeit temporarily. Drama, eh.

55 days hampstead theatre

Mark Gatiss as Charles I

All the actors are superb and totally believable. I especially like the way Mark Gatiss plays Charles with a slight Scottish burr.

The auditorium for this production is configured so the stage is in the middle with seating either side. This works well, drawing the audience into the action. Costumes and props are firmly mid-20th Century. The Parliamentarians when on military duty are dressed in IRA chic, but when in civvies they don demob suits and sober ties, so the dull Puritan look is fully maintained. The exception to all of this is Charles Stuart himself, who throughout is dressed in contemporary kingly robes. It would have been nice to have seen him in a fabulous hat with an impossibly huge plume, but all the action is indoors. This mis-match of eras doesn’t jar at all, in fact it helps to emphasise the contrast between the two sides, the two positions, the fact that Parliament is the future and Absolute Monarchy is the past.

The production is pacy and highly-charged throughout. I can be a bit of a nodder-off at the theatre, but 55 Days owned my full attention from start to finish. Excellent.

55 Days is written by Howard Brenton and directed by Howard Davies. It runs from today until 24 November, that is to say not for terribly long, do don’t miss out.  More info and booking here.

55 Days Hampstead Theatre

Mark Gatiss (Charles Stuart) and Douglas Henshall (Oliver Cromwell) at rehearsal. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Read Full Post »