By Derrick Morgan
The play starts out with a with a woman named “Lucy”, in her late 30’s wiping down some table with four cups on it to the theme of 60’s reggae music.
At this point, I expected, as the write up on Nottingham Playhouse website states; an Englishman an African and a Moore to walk into an Tavern and sit down to talk. Far from it, this is no ordinary play, this is a rehearsed reading of a the play, in which we, the audience, are asked for our viewpoint in form of a question and answer session after the play; and our viewpoint may even give different direction of the play’s outcome.
I couldn’t help feeling that whether they realized it or not, Lynda-Louise Burrell and Catherine Ross were doing something really quite brilliant here. This was akin to the postmodernist Roland Barthes, Death of the Author critique, where Barthes argues against relying on the author’s viewpoint, but giving the reader the authority to interpret the story from their political point of view. Catherine Ross and Lynda Burrell, in stating that the audience comments given afterwards may eventually influence the direction of the play, almost advocates a similar Bathes literary death of the author vision, to the theatrical, death of the Artistic Director?
Instead of the Englishman African and Moore, we are greeted with “Mary”, a lady around the same age as Lucy, running on to stage distraught. Mary cries that her sister has been ‘legally’ taken away by slave traders under the new decree of Queen Elizabeth I. This decree, we later learn does not actually become law, and that the so-called ‘blackamoores’ named in the decree are not released by their masters; not because of any attachment to blackamoores, but, because their masters are not recompensed for the loss of their servant.
I had previously read about Queen Elizabeth I decree in 1596 and was aware that Shakespeare lived around this time, and I was intrigued to see how this play would combine this all together. Well, the answer I found was brilliantly illustrated in the script writing of Fran Hajat. A writer who I admit, I am not familiar with, but who’s work I definitely look out for in future.
Lucy comforts Mary telling her to return home and wait until she speaks with her husband John, After Lucy leaves, Mary is joined by the youngest son Caleb. Caleb is rehearsing lines for a part in a play in which the part he is auditioning for, is a woman. This is the light hearted relief in the play as Caleb camps up the acting in a woman’s dress. At this point a young white male enters the Black Rose Tavern and sits at a side table, purposefully writing notes. The white male, we come to understand, is a young William Shakespeare and friend of the Lucy, the Tavern manageress.
As Caleb leaves the stage William and Lucy begin to talk about his new idea for a play where she suggests a romantic play about young lovers somewhere hot, like Italy. As Lucy’s husband John enters the stage William and Lucy are too busy laughing and joking to notice him watching them from the sidelines. John narrates to the audience in Shakespearian language, jealous that his wife gets along with William so well. John enters the Tavern and takes his wife to the side asking her why this strange young writer spends so much time in their Tavern. Lucy assures him nothing is untoward between them that he just likes a little drink as he writes plays and bouncing ideas to muse with her as he writes.
We later learn from the Historian Catherine Fletcher that the character John was based on a past black male in 16 century England named John Reasonable, who was a master weaver. Catherine Fletcher is a distinguished historian who was brought in by the company to add historical validity the play and characters.
John is awaiting the arrival the Baron Shirley, who works for the Royal household. Baron Shirley’s commissioned John to make some fine silk clothes for his only daughter Sylvia’s wedding. The Baron is pleased with John’s work and asks John where he has learnt to weave so well. John explains that it was his Dutch master who taught him how to weave. John went on to say he had worked long and hard enough to buy his freedom to start working for himself. At this point when the Baron was about to pay John for the clothes he heard giggling and laughter from somewhere behind the tavern door. After which, the Baron called out;
”Sylvia! Sylvia! Is that you!”
The play at this point went from the earlier comedic genre, to taking on a more tragic twist. The Baron searched the tavern and caught his daughter Sylvia cavorting in the back with John and Lucy’s eldest son, Aaron. In a rage the Baron refuses to pay a penny for the garments, putting John at the mercy of merchants who are chasing payment for the raw materials needed to make the clothes.
Sylvia confesses that she has been seeing Aaron all along, behind her husband to be and the Baron’sback, saying that she is in love with Aaron. This further enrages the Baron who throws insults at John and his family demeaning the colour of their skin and status, going on further to say there must be some black witchcraft at work beguiling his daughter to cavort with a lowly weaver’s son. Baron Shirley leaves the tavern dragging his daughter behind him threatening to return with soldiers to ship Aaron off to Spain or Portugal into slavery. After hearing this Aaron runs away.
The young William Shakespeare who is still in the tavern observing all of this from the sidelines as it is being played out in front of him. The younger son Caleb walks in, unaware of the drama which has just unfolded. Shortly after the Baron’s thug soldier enters the tavern asking for the son John the master weaver. Caleb replies that he is the son, and after some struggle they take Caleb away to be shipped out of the country later that night.
Aaron returns to explain how he came to be with the Baron’s daughter. Aaron explains that after a visiting the Baron’s house with samples of cloth John had sent him with, he had a chance meeting with Sylvia who had dropped her handkerchief which he picked up and returned to her. They started talking and fell for each other. Aaron had expressed he is in love with Sylvia but John and Lucy forbid him to see her and persuaded him to promise never to see Sylvia again in return for his brother Caleb.
The young William Shakespeare explained to Lucy how he would write letter to the Queen’s asking for the return of her son Caleb. John meanwhile had approached the Baron asking him to return his youngest son with the promise Aaron would never see Sylvia again. The Baron agrees to take Caleb back to the tavern later that evening. William later hears word from the queens court that the decree saying that all ‘Blackamoores’ should be removed from the land, is not legally binding, unless their masters agree to let them go.
Lucy and young William begin to discuss the events and muse ideas about a play he could write about doomed young love. This is we are led to believe are the seeds of the play of Romeo and Juliet written around this time. I found this another masterstroke of the Fran Hajat’s scriptwriting and Catherine Fletcher’s historical facts tied in together; as William Shakespeare indeed did write play Romeo and Juliet around 1594-96, and it was first published in 1597. The Queens decree to remove all blackamoores from England in 1596 is now perceived as a manoeuvre to use Blackamoores as scapegoat for a failing feudal system, the repeated crop failures around this time. This was a time of great unease, lawlessness and poverty among many local inhabitants.
In the last scene Sylvia walks in to the tavern distressed that Aaron had been to see her saying he is going to take Caleb’s place, as he’d rather die as a slave than to live without her. Lucy tells her to calm down and go back home and wait for her to send word of Aaron whereabouts. Sylvia then reveals she is going to have Aaron’s child. As Aaron walks in to hear this news Baron Shirley arrives in the tavern with Caleb, still furious about his daughters treachery he insists they hand over Aaron in return for Caleb. John refuses to hand over any of his sons. In the struggle that develops the Baron draws his dagger and lunges after Aaron as Sylvia steps in front of Aaron taking the fatal blow and dies.
I don’t think will have given away the whole plot or spoiler in any way here, as the play itself is being re- written and directed by the audience discussions after the show; which I found entertaining in itself. One lady in the audience, who said she was from South Africa stated she came to see a play about William Shakespeare but it was too confusing with current English language then sliding in to Shakespearian speak. She also went on to say there was too many current black lives matter political references and pointed out one of John’s lines where he mentioned ‘our lives matter’ was akin to this, which she thought too political and current for a Shakespearian play. Another lady in the audience, who may well have been English asked if the Queen Elizabeth I decree was in fact been historically correct and to the third comment from a lady who’s thought Lucy’s portrayal of the character was not strong and independent enough.
For me, I wouldn’t change a thing. The play worked on many levels the uncertainty reverberating over the centuries from aftermath of Queen Elizabeth I decree in 1596, to today’s stillness of Queen Elizabeth II in the post brexistentialism aftermath. It is very much a problem play as Fran described it. Rather than pinned down to any one genre, it felt like a post-epoch state, just as the current uncertainty post-brexit uneasy world we live in today. Instead of the decree asking all Europeans to leave the country post brexit, we have instead the uncomfortable silence of our current Queen Elizabeth making us all feel slightly troubled about the future.