by Thomas Middleton
Memorial Hall, March - April 2006
Like many undergraduate English majors, I suspect, I used to wonder occasionally if the Shakespeare Industry weren't some sort of conspiracy of scholars, some tacit agreement to maintain the Bard in his position as Top Poet, and suspected that if you took some other Elizabethan or Jacobean playwright and devoted the same amount of energy to editing, analyzing, elucidating, performing and celebrating him for a few hundred years, nobody would be able to tell the difference. In fact, though, when you read a play like Thomas Middleton's The Witch you realize just how much help old Will offers an acting company, and how much imagination and courage it takes to make such a play work without that kind of help, nearly 400 years after its premiere.
It's not only the language, though that poses problems that the Bard, when he has them, papers over with sheer rhythm and mellifluousness. It may be pretty hard to get your head around “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly," but Shakespeare makes it sound so good, and gives you so much context, and makes you care so passionately about poor Macbeth's hesitancy, that you can go right by it as if you understood it. Middleton doesn't give you that much help.
Paradoxically, a play with so many challenges actually seems to offer a company a kind of freedom. Some of the most adventurous and exciting productions I've seen have been of similarly seldom-produced and difficult plays -- Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, for instance, at the ART in Boston last year, or Pericles, Prince of Tyre (possibly by Shakespeare, on an off day) at UNB a few years ago. Director John Ball and his company clearly took on The Witch with that sense of "let's go for it, what have we got to lose," and have pulled off an engaging and occasionally exciting -- and always interesting -- evening of theatre.
Mike Johnston's imaginative set is the basis on which the production works, splashing (as is becoming almost conventional in Memorial Hall) from the actual stage down across the floor and up against the back wall, splitting the audience into two sections. Up on the stage proper, and flowing down into a central acting area is what is mostly Ravenna's public spaces, where the gentry and their servants engage in their repellent games of Jacobean lust and ambition and their Byzantine plotting and double-crossing. Up against the back corner is the "cave" where Hecate, the witch of the title, and her compatriots hang out for consultation. All this yields a flexible, fluid acting space, with entrances and exits all around, a three-ring circus of intrigue and, oddly, laughter (it is, after all, what Middleton called a tragi-comedy).
Middleton's plot is almost a throwaway, a device cobbled together out of various sources (including Machiavelli) for creating some good scenes and excuses for getting the witches on stage. At Mem Hall, as in 1613, the center of the production (if not the plot) is Hecate. Unlike 1613, however, when the role (like all the rest) would have been taken by a man, Caroline Crompton plays the witch with an athletic, sexy charge, creating the most sensually exciting witch I've seen (at least since the water witch in Len Falkenstein's Macbeth four years ago). Dancing, reclining, writhing erotically, taking a turn on the flute, the bass clarinet and drum, singing, appearing in cameos between scenes to remind us what this play is really all about, Crompton anchors the production with a bravura performance (even if many of her lines were lost in the speed and vivacity of her delivery).
Adding to the attractions of the witches' scenes is the rich comic role of Hecate's son, Firestone, played with a wonderful hint of Kabuki slapstick and athletic clowning by Michelle Dunster. Firestone, the sister witches, and Hecate combine with Mike Johnstone's magical strobe lighting and thunder to make the witch scenes the center of the evening (much as they must have been to cause Shakespeare's company to lift the scenes and introduce them into later productions of Macbeth to please the groundlings). Unlike Shakespeare's witches, however, these really don't have a lot of effect on the plot, such as it is: they're regularly consulted and dispense their potions and charms, but when it comes to the crunch most of the plans go awry and almost all the death and destruction we're invited to expect doesn't occur.
As in so many Jacobean plays, the plot is complicated to the point of incomprehensibility, and involves imputing inconsistent motives to characters in order to get things to work out right. From the opening scenes in which Sebastian (our, shall we say, hero) laments the fact that his contracted fiancée has been married off during his absence, and the Duchess is forced by her husband to drink a toast out of the skull of her father (and resolves to do the Duke in in revenge), we know we're in deep water, and when Francisca appears to bemoan to us the fact that she's pregnant (she treats it as a practical problem -- later, she muses, "These bastards come upon poor venturing gentlewomen ten to one faster than your legitimate children. If I had been married, I'll be hanged if I had been with child so soon now") we know that Middleton's mixing his genres aggressively. The solid performances of some of the principals -- especially Robert Calder as Sebastian (almost a parody of the revenger-hero of other Jacobean plays ("I know what 'tis to pity madmen now; they're wretched things that ever were created, if they be of woman's making and her faithless vows"), Mandy MacLean as Isabella, and Elizabeth Whittingham as Francisca -- make us care about the characters in the confrontational scenes, even when the motives Middleton issues them don't make a lot of sense to us. Justin Read as the "fantastical gentleman," Almachildes, provides a regular dose of almost Falstaffian realism, drunkenly facing the lubricious Hecate ("How? Sup with thee? Dost think I'll eat fried rats and pickled spiders?") to obtain a "love charm" which will turn out to be amazingly inefficacious. And Christopher Cambell's Abberzanes (as Middleton's text says, "a gentleman, neither honest, wise, nor valiant"), is appropriately cowardly, responding to the enraged Antonio's reference to his sword with "Nay, I know not that, sir. I am not acquainted greatly with the blade; I am sure 'tis a good scabbard, and that satisfies me."
As always in such productions, the devil is in the details, and there are many characters whose language we don't quite catch, and whose motives aren't clear, and there are some awkward pauses while props are moved on and off -- but, also as always, at the end of the evening what you remember is the whole: the shape of the production, and the arc of the action. When, at the end, we learn that Antonio has conveniently fallen through a trapdoor, rendering Isabella an eligible widow, and Sebastian "removes his disguise" (here, a hat and a pair of glasses) to the astonishment of all those, including his erstwhile fiancée, whom he's fooled throughout the play, we know that it hasn't really mattered much what we've missed: and when the supposedly dead Duke sits up and forgives his wife for her attempt to have him killed, we know that, well, all's well that ends well in Ravenna, whatever plots may have been hatched and foiled.
The fun and high spirits of this production makes one wonder why it is that Middleton's patched-together pastiche of witchery and skulduggery isn't more often produced. Surely there are audiences ready for a good dose of sexually charged magic and a bit of mistaken identity, some disguise and revenge and a nice sip of wine from a skull.