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Shakespeare Quarterly 54.1 (2003) 87-96

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The Swan Theatre and Shakespeare's Contemporaries:
The 2002 Season

Lois Potter

The Swan Theatre season of rarely-produced plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries and successors, under the directorship of Gregory Doran, was the best idea the RSC has had for years. When it was first opened, the Swan was intended as a laboratory for precisely these kinds of plays. In practice, however, they soon became a minor part of its repertoire. Although the Swan has seen excellent Marlowe and Jonson productions and some interesting one-offs, such as Shirley's Hyde Park,most of the drama from the pre-Civil War period fell victim to its reputation for being box-office death. But it has gradually become apparent that the Swan—one of the few theaters with a following of its own—can get away with taking risks. The building itself is almost enough to sell a play. In this case, it sold—indeed, sold out—all five of them, three of which got onto the Independent's list of the best five shows outside London. Admittedly, part of their success may have been due to the presence of Antony Sher in two showy leading roles—Malevole in The Malcontent and Domitian in The Roman Actor—but many reviews stressed the excellence of the entire ensemble, with special praise for David Rintoul (the title role in Edward III and Ruy Dias in The Island Princess) and Amanda Drew (Gertrude in Eastward Ho!, Domitilla in The Roman Actor, and Aurelia in The Malcontent). To that list I would add Sasha Behar (Quisara in The Island Princess and Sindefy in Eastward Ho!) and Michael Matus (the King in The Island Princess, Latinus in The Roman Actor, and Sir Petronel Flash in Eastward Ho!).

A laboratory isn't usually the venue for a popular theatrical success, but in fact entertainment and instruction were pretty well balanced in the Swan season, since each of the plays raises questions that performance can help to answer. Edward III and Eastward Ho! are texts of uncertain (or multiple) authorship, so those interested in attribution can try to guess who might have written which scene. Both plays, moreover, seem to offer a stark contrast of Good and Bad (the English versus the Scots and French in one case; the industrious city merchants versus the spendthrift would-be courtiers on the other), but the sheer polarization of these values is likely to tempt a modern audience toward a "resistant reading" that may itself be part of the plays' design. Marston's The Malcontent, Fletcher's The Island Princess, and Massinger's The Roman Actor are equally uncertain in tone. Their authors have received comparatively little attention in the theater. Marston had a brief revival in the 1970s and early '80s, when he was seen as a precursor of black comedy. Fletcher is known only as the lesser of two coevals—the greater being, of course, Beaumont or Shakespeare. He also collaborated extensively with Massinger, who is now remembered, if at all, only for A New Way to Pay Old Debts. [End Page 87]

Though scholars have desperately seized on the biographical facts about these authors (Marston's Italian mother, his later career in the Church of England, Fletcher's background as son of a bishop, Massinger's family connection to the Pembrokes), they remain shadowy figures whose plays can't easily be turned into personal utterances. Sympathy and identification rarely seem the appropriate responses to their characters, but what other responses would be appropriate? These heroes who alternate between self-pity and insufferable self-righteousness, these haughty heroines who assume that chastity is the only virtue required of them, these blunt soldiers who think that being physically brave entitles them to address everyone else like a football referee who has given the wrong decision—our lack of knowledge about the authors' likely intentions opens the plays up to a variety of interpretations.

The initial plan for the Swan season, as Gregory Doran explained in the introduction printed in all the programs...


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