Plays

Caledonia

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

William Paterson was a financial adventurer who devised one of the most daring and disastrous speculations of all time. His plan: to found a Scottish colony on Darien in Central America and turn Scotland, one of the poorest nations in Europe, into a colonial power. He invited the public to invest. And they did – in a big way. Within weeks a vast proportion of the nation’s wealth had been subscribed.

The plan went wrong though, and badly so, so that, within a few years, the Scots – demoralised and impoverished – were forced to give up their nation’s independent status and sign the 1707 Treaty of Union with England.

Inspired by documents, journals, letters, songs and poems of the period, Caledonia is both a tribute to heroic ambition and a darkly witty take on the deceptions and self-deceptions of rich and poor alike. It was first performed at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, on 21st August 2010, in a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival.

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

An exuberant and sweeping ‘Ceilidh Play with Scenes, Songs and Music of Highland History’ which tells the continuing story of the exploitation of the Scottish Highlands.

McGrath’s winding, furious, innovative play begins with the story of the Clearances: in the nineteenth century, aristocratic landowners discovered the profitability of sheep farming, and forced a mass emigration of rural Highlanders, burning their houses in order to make way for the Cheviot sheep. The play follows the thread of capitalist and repressive exploitation through the estates of the stag-hunting landed gentry, to the most recent rush for profit in the name of North Sea Oil. It is a passionate history told through ballads, Gaelic songs, poetry, comic sketches and tragic stories of resistance.

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was first performed in 1973 at the ‘What Kind of Scotland’ conference in Edinburgh, then toured throughout Scotland before being televised.

The Clearing

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing is an original play about the effects of Oliver Cromwell’s military campaign in Ireland. It was first performed at the Bush Theatre, London, in November 1993.

The play is set in Ireland in 1652. Oliver Cromwell has passed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland, decreeing that all Catholic landowners must relocate to the province of Connaught, a blighted and barren land in the west of the country. Madeleine, an Irish woman married to an English man, Robert Preston, has just given birth to their first child, but their joy is short-lived. Their union becomes the focus of an ever-rising resentment within their small farming community. As the English parliament under Cromwell’s command mount their ‘to Hell or Connaught’ policy, the Prestons’ happy world is torn apart.

The Bush Theatre premiere was directed by Lynne Parker, with Adrian Rawlins as Robert Preston and Susan Lynch as Madeleine. The play went on to win a Time Out Theatre Award and the John Whiting Award.

The play was revived by Shared Experience in 2002 on a tour starting in Birmingham on 7 March and including a month-long engagement from 23 April to 25 May at London's Tricycle Theatre. The production was directed by Polly Teale and designed by Angela Davies. The cast was Amelda Brown, Pip Donaghy, Aislin McGuckin, Mairead McKinley and Joseph Millson.

The Clink  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Stephen Jeffreys’s play The Clink is a satirical farce set in Elizabethan England, about a comedian who becomes unwillingly involved in the political skullduggery surrounding the dying queen. It was first staged by Paines Plough at Theatre Royal Plymouth on 20 September 1990, ahead of a tour of Britain and Holland.

The play opens in the Liberty of the Clink, an area on the south bank of the Thames which historically was exempt from the jurisdiction of the county's high sheriff, and where the renowned prison known as The Clink was to be found. Lucius Bodkin, one half of traditional comedy duo the Bodkin Brothers, wants a brilliant career and, unlike his brother Thomas, is willing to take any risk to achieve it. His opportunity arrives when he is chosen to entertain a visiting delegation from the Dutch Republic. But the Queen is at death's door, conspirators are everywhere, and Lucius has reckoned without the backstabbers and wide boys that stand in his way.

The Paines Plough production was directed by Sally Furse and designed by Sally Jacobs. It was performed by Tony Bluto, Shelagh Fraser, David Gant, Didi Hopkins, Liz Kettle, Mark Lockyer (as Lucius Bodkin), Ric Morgan, Keith Osborn and Taiwo Payne.

Coram Boy

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's stage adaptation of Jamila Gavin's Whitbread Award-winning children's novel, Coram Boy (published in 2000), is a Dickensian tale of philanthropy, foundling children, and families both divided and, ultimately, reunited. It was first performed, with music composed by Adrian Sutton, in the Olivier auditorium of the National Theatre, London, on 15 November 2005 (previews from 2 November).

In 18th-century Gloucestershire, the evil Otis Gardner preys on unmarried mothers, promising to take their babies (and their money) to Thomas Coram's hospital for foundling children. Instead, he buries the babies and pockets the loot. But Otis's downfall is set in train when his half-witted son Meshak falls in love with a young girl, Melissa, and rescues the unwanted son she has had with a disgraced aristocrat. The child is brought up in Coram's hospital, and proves to have inherited the startling musical gifts of his father – gifts that ultimately bring about his father's redemption and a heartbreaking family reunion.

The National Theatre premiere was directed by Melly Still and designed by Ti Green and Melly Still. It was performed by Jack Tarlton, Justine Mitchell, Nicholas Tizzard, Abby Ford, Anna Madeley, Paul Ritter, Ruth Gemmell, Inika Leigh Wright, Adam Shipway, Rebecca Johnson, Kelly Williams, Eve Matheson, Katherine Manners, Sophie Bould, William Scott-Masson, Bertie Carvel, Sharon Maharaj, Akiya Henry, Chetna Pandya and Stuart McLoughlin.

It was revived at the National Theatre from November 2006 to February 2007.

The play opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theater on 2 May 2007, with previews from 16 April 2007, directed by Melly Still.

Coriolanus (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Coriolanus was first published in the First Folio of 1623; we have no recording of a first performance contemporary with Shakespeare. As a result, dating the play has proven to be a difficult task, with most modern critics placing the writing of the play in the second half of the 1610s.

Affording Coriolanus a genre is similarly tricky: it is ‘The Tragedy of Coriolanus’ in the First Folio, but it is deeply indebted to the sub-genre of ‘Roman plays’ that form a significant part of the Shakespearean oeuvre. As with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare draws on Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans for both historical detail and literary tropes.

The exploration of the public voice and the body politic in Coriolanus is immediately displayed in the play’s opening, where Roman citizens are rising up against the mounting price of grain. (It has been argued that this is a contemporary reference to the Midland Revolt of 1607, where peasants in the Midlands of Britain rioted against the enclosure of common land.) Menenius, a wise old Roman generally respected by the people, recites a parable narrating the breakdown of the body when its individual parts are not in accord. For the body politic to function, the head (here, the General; in Shakespeare’s England, King James I) and the belly (the people) must support each other.

One of the play’s central explorations, that of the battle between public and private identity, and political and personal duty, is encapsulated in the figure of Coriolanus, much as it is in other Roman figures (e.g. Brutus in Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra). His identity is unfixed, and manipulated by the patricians and his ambitious mother, Volumnia.

Unlike other Shakespearean tragic heroes, Coriolanus only has one lengthy soliloquy, in which he laments the ‘dissension’ and ‘bitterest enmity’ to which ‘friends now fast sworn’ have turned. As his affinity shifts from Romans to Volscians, his own identity gets lost, until he cries at the end of Act IV that ‘only that name remains’ – the irony being that ‘Coriolanus’ is not the name he started off with at the beginning of the play (he was ‘Caius Martius’ until he was granted the toponym Coriolanus, after his defeat of the town of Corioles). He is murdered at the end of the play in a bloody attack perpetrated by conspirators, mirroring Caesar’s death in his eponymous Roman tragedy. The opacity of the play’s central figure has rendered theatrical and cinematic interpretations of Coriolanus manifold in the past century especially: Laurence Olivier (twice), Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Ian McKellan and Ralph Fiennes have all portrayed the general.

video Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse / NT)

National Theatre
Type: Video

Age recommendation: 12+

This Donmar Warehouse production was recorded through National Theatre Live on 30th January, 2014

When an old adversary threatens Rome, the city calls once more on her hero and defender: Coriolanus. But he has enemies at home too. Famine threatens the city, the citizens’ hunger swells to an appetite for change, and on returning from the field Coriolanus must confront the march of realpolitik and the voice of an angry people.

Shakespeare’s searing tragedy of political manipulation and revenge, Coriolanus features an Evening Standard Award-winning performance from Tom Hiddleston in the title role, directed by the Donmar's former Artistic Director Josie Rourke.

CAST
First Citizen: Rochenda Sandall
Second Citizen: Mark Stanley
Third Citizen: Dwane Walcott
Menenius: Mark Gatiss
Caius Martius Coriolanus: Tom Hiddleston
Cominius: Peter de Jersey
Titus Lartius: Alfred Enoch
Brutus: Elliot Levey
Sicinia: Helen Schlesinger
Aufidius: Hadley Fraser
Volumnia: Deborah Findlay
Virgilia: Birgitte Hjort Sørensen
Valeria, Fourth Citizen: Jacqueline Boatswain
Young Martius: Joe Willis

CREATIVES
Director: Josie Rourke
Designer: Lucy Osborne
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound Designer: Emma Laxton
Video Designer: Andrzej Goulding
Composer: Michael Bruce
Movement: Jonathan Watkins
Fight Director: Richard Ryan

Cromwell

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Set in England during the 1600s, Cromwell depicts a world of conflict and survival as the warring of rival ideological factions decimates the opportunities for ordinary people to live ordinary lives.

The play centres on a man named Procter who finds himself drafted into war, and even accepts the principles for which he is fighting, until he falls in love with a woman, Joan, whose life has been decimated by the conflict around her. Procter lays down his weapon and becomes a pacifist, preferring a quiet life of domesticity. However, he and Joan are powerless to prevent the war from coming to their doorstep once more – and again find their lives torn to pieces at the point of a sword.

In his introduction, David Storey writes that ‘Cromwell was written when the war in Vietnam, and the troubles in Northern Ireland, were at their height . . . To some extent an enigma, the play’s form emerged at a time when I was much enthralled by naturalistic – or poeticised naturalistic writing, a sudden transposition to something approaching free verse reflecting, to a degree, the dilemma explicit in the play itself: how to reconcile humanity’s insatiable appetite for destruction with a longing for transcendence and peace.’

Cromwell was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 15 August 1973, in a production directed by Anthony Page.

Dara

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Tanya Ronder's adaptation of Shahid Nadeem's play Dara is a domestic drama of global consequence, set in 17th-century Mughal India. It was first performed in the Lyttelton auditorium of the National Theatre, London, on 27 January 2015 (previews from 20 January).

Nadeem’s original play was first performed by Ajoka Theatre at Alhamra Arts Council, Lahore, Pakistan, in January 2010, and later in Karachi and Islamabad in Pakistan, and Amritsar, Delhi, Lucknow, Jaipur and Hyderabad in India.

The play's action begins in 1659, in Mughal India. The imperial court is a place of opulence and excess, with music, drugs, eunuchs and harems. Two brothers, Dara and Aurangzeb, whose mother’s death inspired the Taj Mahal, are heirs to this Muslim empire. Now they fight ferociously for succession. Dara, the crown prince, has the love of the people, and of his emperor father; but the younger Aurangzeb holds a different vision for India’s future. Islam inspires poetry in Dara, puritanical rigour in Aurangzeb. Can Jahanara, their beloved sister, assuage Aurangzeb’s resolve to seize the Peacock Throne and purge the empire?

In an author's note in the published script, Ronder writes: 'My brief was to take Shahid Nadeem’s play and adapt it for a National Theatre audience. We set out, myself and director Nadia Fall, to unpack the events cited in the original play, to educate ourselves, and to recreate the story in a way that didn’t put our audience at arm’s length, able to write the drama off as a story that was not theirs. The tale of Dara and Aurangzeb is one which a Pakistani or an Indian audience would have preexisting knowledge and some ownership of. A story, albeit differently told across borders, which children all over the Indian subcontinent will have heard at school or at home, (perhaps akin to our connection in Britain to Henry VIII or Elizabeth I), but that very few of us in the West know about. ... The result is a more recognisable shape of play; it has expanded to five acts, it starts before the original begins and ends several decades later. I have added in a trial scene to give Dara the voice I think we need to hear, and added various characters and storylines, all taken from or inspired by historical facts – Itbar and Afia, Murad, Mian Mir, Hira Bai and Aurangzeb’s relationship with her – and also incorporated a childhood for the brothers and sisters of this Mughal court. All in an attempt to round the story out, to make it a fairer fight between the brothers and to hopefully give our audience the psychological and emotional complexity they are used to.'

The National Theatre premiere was directed by Nadia Fall and designed by Katrina Lindsay. It was performed by Zubin Varla (as Dara), Gurjeet Singh, Scott Karim, Ronak Patani, Emilio Doorgasingh, Anjana Vasan, Sargon Yelda (as Aurangzeb), Rudi Dharmalingam, Esh Alladi, Nicholas Khan, Mariam Haque, Gary Wood, Vincent Ebrahim, Nathalie Armin, Anneika Rose, Anjli Mohindra, Liya Tassisa, Indira Joshi, Chook Sibtain, Simon Nagra, Emilio Doorgasingh, Prasanna Puwanarajah and Ranjit Krishnamma.

Doctor Scroggy’s War

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Howard Brenton's play Doctor Scroggy's War is the story of a fictional soldier, Jack Twigg, who, after receiving an injury on the front line during the First World War, encounters the polymath and celebrated surgeon Harold Gillies, acknowledged as the father of modern plastic surgery. The play was first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, on 12 September 2014, marking the centenary of the war.

The play's action centres around the invented character Jack Twigg, a ship’s chandler’s son who enlists in the London Regiment, falls in love with the upper-class Penelope Wedgewood and works as a junior intelligence officer for Sir John French during the battle of Loos in 1915. But Jack leaves the staff, determined to serve in the front line, and there receives a terrible facial injury. This, in the play’s second half, brings him into contact with Harold Gillies, a real-life pioneering plastic surgeon who developed new methods of skin-grafting to restore the faces of badly mutilated men at the Queen’s hospital, Sidcup. The play’s title derives from the roistering alter ego Gillies created to prevent his patients from succumbing to despair. Gillies tries to convince Twigg not to go back to the front, but is unable to do so and the play ends with the young soldier back on the Western Front.

In an article published in The Independent (10 September 2014), Brenton says of the play: 'What helped me in dramatising Harold Gillies were accounts of his extraordinary way of speaking. He was renowned for being difficult to understand, flinging out sentences studded with bizarre metaphors, speeding ahead of his listeners and, at times, himself. Gillies had a hyperactive sense of humour: there were practical jokes and entertainments; there was cross-dressing and illicit champagne and oysters served at night in the wards. Queens was a military hospital and rumours of "goings on" troubled authority. But Gillies, who treated more than five thousand terribly wounded men, some needing as many as 50 operations, understood that souls as well as faces had to be healed. Some of his patients never reintegrated into society but an extraordinary number did, with an insouciance that Gillies's "goings on" encouraged. I have him say about the hospital "We don't do glum here" – that was his spirit. But he was also conflicted in his work by a great fear: that the men he healed would go back to fight at the front.'

The Shakespeare's Globe premiere was directed by John Dove and designed by Michael Taylor. It was performed by Catherine Bailey (as Penelope Wedgewood), Sam Cox, Patrick Driver, Will Featherstone (as Jack Twigg), James Garnon (as Harold Gillies), Daisy Hughes, Joe Jameson, Tom Kanji, Christopher Logan, William Mannering, Holly Morgan, Rhiannon Oliver, Keith Ramsay, Paul Rider, Katy Stephens and Dickon Tyrrell.

Historical drama is almost as old as theatre itself and continues to play a viable role in contemporary theatre. For the oldest surviving play, The Persians in 472 B.C.E., Aeschylus drew on events from the Greco-Persian War in which he had fought eight years earlier. Using historical characters and events, he imagined dialogue, compressed episodes for dramatic effect, and dramatised material to make points relevant to his contemporary audience, all strategies that remain part of the genre. In The Poetics almost 140 years later, Aristotle advised that tragedies based on history increased an audience’s belief in the probability of events and thus heightened the emotional impact of the play.

“History play”, describing a genre as opposed to the subject matter of a play, has imprecise origins and boundaries. When the editors of the 1623 folio edition divided Shakespeare’s plays into comedies, tragedies, and histories, they already had some sense of the history play as a distinct dramatic type, but among the histories they included Richard II and Richard III, which today we consider as tragedies, emphasizing the difficulty of making sharp generic distinctions.

In the 19th century the term “chronicle", which had medieval origins, was introduced to describe plays that depicted a series of events in temporal order, unified usually by a central character or a specific occasion. Some critics posited a more disconnected, episodic sequence in the “Chronicle play", contrasting with a cause and effect order of events in the history play. While a useful distinction, it was not observed by playwrights in any period. Today the term history play describes any play ostensibly drawing on actual events.

With the development of theatre in the Renaissance, the history play re-emerged from the religious moralities, a process we can see in England with John Bale’s King Johan, written about 1538 for the court of Henry VIII. Here the abstract characters of the morality play morph into historical figures with King John depicted as a proto-Protestant battling an evil pope. Christopher Marlowe developed the genre more fully with his Edward II and The Massacre at Paris, both probably written in 1593, and Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy and the Richard II/Henry IV/V tetralogy follow in the 1590s. After the death of Elizabeth in 1603, the popularity of the genre rapidly declined to the point that John Ford in the prologue to his history play Perkin Warbeck, published in 1634, commented that the genre was “of late so out of fashion, so unfollowed.” This was in large part because the focus of art in this period was to depict universal truths unencumbered by the peculiarities of specific times and places.

Interest in history plays revived in the early 19th century with the Romantic rejection of neoclassicism in favor of a view that history depicts a metaphysical plane revealing itself as it unfolds through the material world. Historical precedent was also enlisted to support emerging forces of nationalism, democracy, and spiritualism. Friedrich Schiller in Germany, Victor Hugo in France, and most of the important English Romantic poets wrote history plays, though of the latter group only Alfred Lord Tennyson’s plays had any degree of commercial success. Historical authenticity became a new standard for elaborate stage spectacles throughout Europe and America, and even melodrama explored historical or pseudo historical material.

In spite of elaborate staging, the 19th century history plays were basically biographical dramatisations of major historical figures. Early 20th century historical drama kept this focus, but reflecting the rise of realism, often shifted toward domestic settings and greater emphasis on the private rather than public lives of “shakers and movers.” The English playwright John Drinkwater created half a dozen successful bio-dramas between 1918 and 1925, two of the most popular dealing with prominent Americans Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. George Bernard Shaw, in separate plays, reshaped General John Burgoyne, Julius Caesar, and Joan of Arc into social iconoclasts who advocated Shaw’s political and social ideas.

Saint Joan was also the subject of one of the American Maxwell Anderson’s more than half a dozen historical dramas. Of these, three of the most successful, written in verse, dealt with British queens: Elizabeth the Queen (1930), Mary of Scotland (1933), and Anne of a Thousand Days (1948). The most successful verse dramatisation of the period was T.S. Eliot’s one historical play Murder in the Cathedral (1935), depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett. Christopher Fry also cast historical material into verse. His most successful play, Curtmantle (1962), dealt as well with Beckett, but focused more on King Henry II, who was also the subject of James Goldman’s popular 1966 play The Lion in Winter. This, like John Osborne’s 1961 psycho-biographical history play, Luther, was successfully adapted as a film.

Another variation of historical drama developed in the 1930s— outdoor summer productions, often with musical accompaniment, staged principally in America. The first outdoor symphonic drama, Paul Green’s The Lost Colony, opened in 1937 and is still performed. Green wrote eight subsequent history plays for outdoor theatres, often built especially for each play. His plays usually retained a central male figure, but focused more broadly on how events impact a community, reflecting the influence of the early 20th century Community Pageant Movement. The even more prolific Kermit Hunter wrote as many as 40 outdoor historical plays. While the vogue for outdoor historical plays peaked in the 1960s, more than 30 are still produced each summer in the United States. Their impact is measurable more as a social phenomenon and an economic resource for communities than in the quality of the scripts produced.

After World War II attitudes toward historical studies began to shift, a change eventually echoed in the structure of history plays. Traditional historical studies, termed pejoratively “Old History” or “Whig History", focused on political and military events, commonly from a Euro-centric perspective. Individuals, usually male representatives of the dominant culture, shaped events that led progressively to the ascendance of the hegemony. Historical “facts” that could be discovered and objectively reported were assumed to exist. The first challenges came from Marxist historians who viewed history in terms of economic forces and class conflict. Later a group of French historians known as the Annalistes shifted attention away from dominant figures to social, cultural, and demographic processes. The Deconstructionists, influenced by Jacques Derrida, called into question the efficacy of any metanarrative of history and rejected the positivist confidence that historical data could be objectively discovered and reported.

Many contemporary historical dramas exploit the strategies of new history. In addition to Marxist histories, social histories dramatise group actions rather than those of individuals, and oppositional histories depict events from the outlook of the oppressed, the losers, or the disenfranchised. Feminist drama borrows from other historical approaches to reposition women and gender issues in the historical account. Conventional narratives are challenged by Deconstructionist histories that use pastiche techniques and emphasize micronarratives.

Traditional historical methods were not abandoned but reconfigured. For example, Joan Littlewood in satirizing World War I in Oh What a Lovely War! (1963) intermixed music hall techniques with projected charts, clippings, and graphics, the latter used earlier by the Living Newspaper docudramas of the Federal Theatre project to dramatise recent events.

Historical drama had always carried messages, but in contemporary theatre, history serves even more blatantly to support specific agendas. For example, Charles Wood’s pacifist play Dingo (1967) used expressionist and music hall techniques to deconstruct World War II in North Africa from the viewpoint of common soldiers, a technique of social history. David Hare’s Fanshen (1975) is a Marxist micro-history recreating the collective process at work in a Chinese village. Caryl Churchill combined social, Marxist, and feminist history in a number of plays. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) dramatises the English Civil War in terms of the frustrated objectives of Levelers, Diggers, and Ranters, with multiple actors playing a single character to deemphasize the individual’s role in shaping historical events.

This more complex view of history has reawakened contemporary playwrights, particularly in the British theatre, to the rich possibilities of the history play.

Richard H. Palmer, Ph.D., Professor of Theatre, The College of William and Mary