The RSC habit continues, we've now been often enough to feel confident that we can negotiate the massive road works (which baffle a middle aged sat nav) with ease, along with the inexplicable lack of sign posting for Stratford at key roundabouts (this might have been the first time we didn't make a detour to the outskirts of Coventry). The play was John Fird's Love's Sacrifice which I'd done no research on before going.
In theory I know that Shakespeare is marvellous but in practice I've found most of his plays that I've seen or studied hard work to engage with or whole heartedly enjoy. In turn that put me off his contemporaries and immediate succsesors for a long time but having made the effort to see some more of what's been on at The Swan a whole new world is opening up.
Because I hadn't read the relevant part of the introduction by the time I got home the history of Love's Sacrifice came as a bit of a surprise. Despite being apparently well received when it was first performed it seems it may not have been performed again since - so not for almost 400 years. This production is the result of academic collaboration the to extend the repertoire through revival and rediscovery. Now I have read the programme, and a few stray articles online, I know that around 600 plays survive (I'm unclear as to wether this is specifically from Shakespear's time or within The Swan's remit of reviving plays from 1570 to 1750).
Love's Sacrifice made it on stage after a series of workshops suggested it might be a winner. I think it is. It seems Ford is responding to Othello, and possibly a similar set of events where an Italian prince did away with his wife and her lover.
The Duke of Pavy has married the beautiful, but not so well born, Bianca and so far they seem happy though there is the suggestion of some tension between her and the Dukes recently widowed sister Fiormonda, and then the Duke's best friend Fernando returns.
Fernando catches the eye of Fiormonda, but he's already smitten with Bianca who he procedes to court. At first she resists him but eventually gives way to his charms and admits she loves him, and that he can have her body to do what he will with - but if she breaks her wedding vows she will kill herself. Fernando accepts this and so the couple settle for languishing looks and the odd kiss but Fiormonda and the Dukes secretary have begun to suspect the relationship and so motivated by lust and jealousy Fiormonda sets about poisoning her brothers mind against his wife.
Eventually Bianca decides to consummate her love with Fernando at which point the Duke, most inconveniently, catches them (not quite in the act). What follows is the highlight of the play as Bianca, reasonably sure that she will die, taunts her husband who seems torn between a desire to forgive and for revenge. His sister pushes him to revenge and so Bianca is dispatched. Brutally. After that the body count increases with some high camp drama. Meanwhile there has been a sub plot where the courtier Ferentes has got 3 separate ladies pregnant and now refuses to marry any of them.
Disgraced, insulted, and rejected the women gather together to plot revenge choosing to kill Ferentes during a court entertainment. Reactions to this are mixed but in the end the consensus seems to be that he had it coming.
It's not impossible to understand why this play fell from favour and out of the canon. It's impossible to imagine a Victorian audience for example taking kindly to 3 unwed mothers not only getting away with murder but also getting relatively happy endings, and then there is the question of Ford's complacency about Bianca's prospective infidelity.
Her position seems to be that having married with good intentions and in good faith, but then finding a man she far prefers should she be held to those vows? Fernando betrays his friend by propositioning his wife 4 or 5 times before she gives in and admits to returning his feelings which is hardly admirable behaviour - but then none of the men here are particularly admirable characters. Everything is driven by the women, and that makes it a fascinating play.
The production itself is gorgeous, with rich colours, sumptuous fabrics, and a libral use of projections and music adding atmosphere. Whatever faults there are in the play (the last 20 minutes all go a bit crazy for modern sensibilities) Bianca and Ferentes murder scenes are transfixing- real genuine heart in the mouth edge of the seat, and tears in the eye stuff. Catrin Stewart is really compelling as Bianca and so is Matthew Needham as the Duke - so much so that it's possible to feel some sympathy for him as he murders his basically innocent wife in a particularly unpleasant manner.
Sometimes it seems a play is never performed simply because it never has been. This one definitely deserves an audience - we came out the theatre thoroughly over excited and inspired - and what more can you ask for than that?