The English theatre, between the late 1580s and the stifling imposition of royal censorship on the playhouses in 1737, has bequeathed to us an unrivalled inheritance of great plays, created by generation after generation of brilliantly innovative dramatists.
But only the tiniest percentage of this wealth is ever seen on our stages today.
Every decade we can watch multiple revivals of even the most inchoate of Shakespeare’s scripts, while extraordinary inventions by his rivals are left gathering dust on library shelves.
The theatre’s innate conservatism, and lack of curiosity about the riches available to it, mean that the established repertoire of an extremely narrow selection of non-Shakespearean sixteenth- to eighteenth-century works remains dominant.
Meanwhile, rapid cultural and educational transformations have been increasing the challenges confronting any company seeking to translate scripts from this period into living acts of theatre today.
Early modern playwrights, for instance, assume in their audiences an alertness to Christian and classical allusions which can no longer be taken for granted. Theatrical inertia thus gains an alibi for its indolence from changing circumstances of reception.
Over the last ten years, in the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television, we have been exploring some of the outstanding plays from this repertoire, via experimental workshops and full-scale productions.
The latter are staff-directed, with student casts and production teams, but professional designers and composers.
Because of the generous support of the Sylvia and Colin Charitable Trust, to whom we are deeply grateful, we have been able to deploy ambitiously the full technical resources of our state-of-the-art main stages in these ventures.
The goal is to create vivid and entertaining theatre now from these extraordinary, mould-breaking, scripts.
Accordingly, we use modern settings and costumes, and make modest changes to the dialogue, where, for example, the original phrasing might prove opaque to contemporary audiences at moments critical to the spectators’ understanding of the action.
The result has been a series of productions, which, we believe, has more than demonstrated that neglected masterpieces from the long seventeenth century can speak with a potent immediacy, relevance, and delight in performance today.
We have mainly focused our attention on two contrasting decades – the first, and the last, of the seventeenth century.
Accordingly, we have staged, since 2011, Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters and John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan from the early years of James I’s reign, and, from the 1690s, John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, to be followed this June by John Dryden’s masterly, and exuberantly entertaining, Amphitryon from the same decade.
We have also staged James Shirley’s Hyde Park, from the 1630s – a suave, cleverly plotted, and emotionally complex, London-set comedy, indebted to the comic experiments of the Jacobean period, but also anticipating, in multiple ways, the radical reinvention of comedy which followed the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after the enforced cessation of normal theatrical performance during the Civil War and the Cromwellian Protectorate.
Films of all the productions which we have staged to date are viewable at www.earlymoderntheatre.co.uk, where they will be joined later this year by the film of Amphitryon.
Also accessible on the same website are films which record some of our continuing work with leading theatre professionals, in exploring this repertoire practically – experiments which prepare the ground for our production ventures.
These include films of three Olivier Award-winning actors – Penelope Wilton rehearsing actors in a scene from Middleton’s great tragedy Women Beware Women, Oliver Ford Davies exploring, in interview, the demands of performing early Jacobean verse in National Theatre productions, and Henry Goodman re-investigating, both analytically and in rehearsal performance, the challenges of playing leading roles in Ben Jonson comedies, which he has performed for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In addition, in a continuing project, National Theatre director Simon Godwin, whose production of Twelfth Night there is currently playing to packed audiences, joined us for a day-long symposium, experimenting with a dizzying scene of trickery and deceit from Middleton’s city comedy Michaelmas Term.
Our explorations have also generated a BAFTA-nominated film (for FilmEducation) on ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Performance, in which examples of our rehearsal room work feature centrally. (There are plans underway for a sequel, on performing Macbeth.)
Throughout our work, the ambition is to blend scholarly knowledge and investigation with adventurous, and pragmatic, practical experiment, targeted on restoring masterworks, from this fertilely inventive century and a half of theatrical creativity, to the twenty-first century stage, in ways which will confidently engage, challenge, and delight today’s audiences.