Writers: Robert Pope &Ian Dixon-Potter
Director: Linda Miller
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
In the turbulent world of late Elizabethan London, having the wrong sort of friendship with the wrong sort of playwright could send a man to the Bridewell (in the days when it specialized in torture and not fringe theatre). Intrigue was everywhere, from the bedroom to the Star Chamber, from the playhouse to the court, and hip-slung rapiers were not just for show. Robert Pope and Ian Dixon-Potter bypass the heritage tapestry of merrie England and imagine the events that led to the death of Christopher Marlowe in a Deptford tavern. Was it really a quarrel over a ‘little reckoning’? Or were greater affairs of state at work? In a little under 90 minutes, and with a fine cast playing a few key historical figures, this is a bold and horribly plausible account of what might have happened.
Ben Scarles brings an exuberance and confidence to the title rôle. His Marlowe (‘Kitt’) is already a celebrity in the emerging theatre, the ‘passionate’ and ‘lustful shepherd’ adored by audiences and held in awe by his fellow playwrights (including an unknown William Shakespeare). Kitt loves the attention, a little too much since it blinds him to the danger he’s in. With friends in high places, he feels untouchable by the state, but that was before the new regime of Sir Robert Cecil. Now, he comes under suspicion, and we see the shift in a scene in which Cecil questions Poley about Marlowe’s career as a spy and about his personal life. Poley, played by Neil Summerville, was Marlowe’s handler and clearly admires this talented young man. He’s also careful to express his own disapproval of Marlowe’s dissolute lifestyle and atheistical opinions, and Summerville captures his character’s real-time monitoring of how his story is being received – the darting glances, the nervous lip licking – and how, as he senses Cecil’s darkening mood, he puts plenty of distance between himself and his former charge. When Poley and Marlowe meet again – an encounter of exquisite, unbearable intimacy – we understand the choice Poley has made. As Cecil himself says, ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’
Mike Anfield ably embodies the substantial figure of Sir Robert, a man who doesn’t have to raise his voice or flap his arms to instil fear. A formidable servant of Queen and country, and ultimately of God, to all intents and purposes Cecil is the higher power. Unlike the Earl of Southampton, an enthusiastic patron of the playhouses, Cecil is not enamoured of ‘the heresy and rabble rousing disguised as theatrical entertainment’ and sees the playacting of kings as subversive.
The young, up-and-coming Shakespeare (Gianbruno Spena) isn’t put off and works on his play about the sixth Henry with a little help from Marlowe. He admires Kitt’s five-beat metre but not his drunkenness or his big mouth. Tentative and deferential, and yet with growing confidence, Shakespeare is intelligent enough to see how the game is played, and how subversion can be woven into the very fabric of theatre itself. A cameo appearance by Giordano Bruno (a special guest at the ‘School of Night’) reminds us of the risks of being a freethinker in a society that takes heresy seriously. The playwrights all have ink on their fingers, but the torturers have blood on their aprons. With the aid of a couple of career-ending thumbscrews, Topcliffe persuades Thomas Kyd to inform on his friend Marlowe, who soon becomes the dead shepherd of the title.