Better read

25th September 2012

To Shakespeare’s Globe – or at least to the Sackler Studios just round the corner – for a wonderfully jolly staged reading on Sunday of Philip Massinger‘s comedy A New Way to Pay Old Debts. Probably written in 1625, this is one of the more popular dramas from the theatre just after Shakespeare’s death. Even so our theatre companies invariably seem to prefer yet another Romeo and Juliet to presenting this comedy – or indeed to exploring the contemporary repertory of nearly 500 surviving plays from the period 1576 to 1642 that are not by Shakespeare. Which is exactly why Globe Education’s excellent Sunday afternoon series called Read not Dead came into being seventeen years and two hundred performances ago.

Read not Dead brings together a group of professional actors on a Sunday to rehearse and then perform in front of an audience a reading of an early modern play. Among the authors of the two hundred works given so far are comparatively well-known names like John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Heywood and Ben Jonson. But the series has also embraced John Quarles and his Tarquin Banished and Robert Daborn’s A Christian Turn’d Turk, as well as the inevitable ‘Anon.’ (responsible for, among others, A Warning for Fair Women and The Trial of Chivalry). In addition, there have been presentations of ‘bad’ Shakespeare quartos, adaptations of Shakespeare and a couple of new plays.

In an extract (reproduced in Sunday’s programme) from the book Shakespeare’s Globe – A Theatrical Experiment, edited by Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper, the actor and director James Wallace outlines two of the imperatives behind the project, which was set up by Patrick Spottiswoode (who remains Director, Globe Education):

One was to get more actors involved in the whole Globe project… Patrick wanted to bring in more ‘mad blood’, and so far over a thousand actors have taken part. His second motive was to keep attention on the whole of the early modern drama. His department is, as he puts it, Globe Education, not Shakespeare Education. It was always part of [founder] Sam [Wanamaker]’s vision to explore all aspects of the dramatic arts from that time, both for their own sake (it would still have been a golden age without Shakespeare) as well as to contextualise the plays of Shakespeare within their original conditions.

Having only come together at 10am on the Sunday morning, the actors play ‘on the book’, reading from a script that they hold in their hands. They have minimal elements of costuming and a few props, but there is no attempt at settings – on Sunday Massinger’s action unfolded in front of a single purple drape. The audience of course has some kind of investment in early modern drama (many are scholars), and so is inclined to be sympathetic, but the remarkable thing is how well this approach works in dramatic terms. The words – which can be hard to make sense of on the page – do simply come alive when spoken with intelligence and understanding. The texts really are better when ‘read’.

On Sunday the director was James Wallace, a stalwart of more than fifty Read not Dead stagings and a passionate advocate for the plays of John Lely. (I am delighted to say that we are working with James on a project to do with early modern drama, which will involve filming before Christmas – watch out for more details here in coming weeks.) He marshalled an exemplary cast, led by a magisterial Alan Cox, who inhabited the lead role of arch villain Sir Giles Overreach with great élan. In support were the likes of Benjamin Whitrow and the irrepressible Tim Treloar (known to us from Rupert Goold’s Macbeth).

After a slightly stolid start (most definitely the play’s fault) the drama was revealed as funny and smart and sexy and bitingly satirical, with corrupt judges and toadying lawyers among its targets. As one might hope, love conquers all in the end, but not before a complex round of deceptions and misunderstandings. One was left in no doubt that, as theatrical managements knew through to at least the nineteenth century, A New Way to Pay Old Debts can be a most definite crowd-pleaser. Not every play from the series has emerged with such distinction from the process (and Massinger’s comedy is indeed still given on occasions) but this is a great place to make discoveries and to combat what, after this year above all, is being widely called ‘Shakespeare fatigue’.

Nor is it only that immediate sense of having had really quite a lot of the Bard in the past nine months that suggests that Read not Dead is close to the dramatic zeitgeist. The RSC’s new Artistic Director Greg Doran (with whom we made Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesar for the screen) has already spoken of the fundamental importance of understanding Shakespeare ‘in context’ – and it seems likely that in the coming years that company will present more early modern drama that is not by the man himself.

There is now a wonderful range of scholarly engagement with many of these texts – and important new publications are changing our sense of the drama of this time, as with the recent Oxford University Press edition Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, edited by Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino, and The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, edited in seven volumes by David Bevington, Martin Butler and Ian Donaldson. And in his welcoming remarks on Sunday Patrick Spottiswoode said that Read not Dead has plans to go ‘on the road’ including scheduled readings in Middle Temple Hall of plays known to have been performed there.

Shakespeare’s Globe is also in the middle of an exciting project to build a second theatre at its site. As their website explains:

The shell of [an indoor Jacobean] theatre already exists to the left of the Globe’s main foyer entrance. Shakespeare wrote for both types of playhouse [that is, for the open-air auditorium and the smaller, closed house] and it was always the intention of Sam Wanamaker to create an indoor Jacobean theatre alongside the outdoor theatre.

Here’s a video which gives a brief introduction to the project:

As for Read not Dead in the immediate future, although details are not yet online, there are two more events before Christmas. On Sunday 4 November, the play is Richard Brome‘s 1640 satire The Court Beggar, and then a month later, on 2 December, the choice is Ben Jonson‘s Cynthia’s Revels, or The Fountain of Self-Love.

Image: courtesy of V&A – detail of hand coloured and etched portrait of Edmund Kean (1789-1833) as Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, ink and wash on paper, published by William West, London, 19 October 1818, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.2192-2009


  1. I recently had an idea for making Early Modern Drama more accessible, on audio:

    But I’m pleased the tide is turning.

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