Christopher Adams, playwright and academic with the Institute of English Studies, appears in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse programme for The Broken Heart interviewing director Caroline Steinbeis. I happened to be seeing Christopher the day after I saw The Broken Heart, and in the Barbican Martini Bar (I won’t tell you what we were wearing), I complained to him that I didn’t really know what to make of the show I’d seen.
There’s this great unassuming cowardly chap Orgilus, who plans to runs away from Sparta, even though he’s been wronged. Penthea, the woman he loves, who loves him and to whom he was promised, has instead married a very jealous man, Bassanes. It’s better for everyone if Orgilus leaves town for Athens. But- aha! Secretly, Orgilus stays in Sparta, disguising himself as a scholar to “hearken after Penthea’s usage”. Act 1: Boom. A wronged man – afraid to take action. But as the play went on, I realised that the opening scenes, and my expectation of A Revenge Tragedy™, meant that I was waiting for Orgilus to twist and turn into Tragic Revenge Hero, and he- um- wasn’t.
Chris hadn’t seen the show when I spoke to him, but he did give me this thought, “I’m not sure that character is a useful way into Ford’s writing, or revenge drama”. Instead, he suggested, it’s about the enfolding of a plot in such a way that great, specific, ingenious theatrical violence can be wrought in the final act. I’m not an academic, but this conversation made really clear to me that the Globe’s project to bring a whole load of non-Shakespearean Jacobean drama to their ‘Blackfriars’ space is going to be a tough one – and it’s going to be tough on us as audiences especially – because we’ve forgiven Shakespeare his idiosyncrasies and because history is on his side. I – and I’m speaking personally – am wrong to go into a Ford revenge tragedy, and expect Bad Hamlet (coming soon to theatres near you). This is something else, and Orgilus isn’t going to change, so much as the plot is going to move around him until he is in the perfect position to effect a – still cowardly – revenge that is entirely his own.
In the meantime, though, Steinbeis’ production doesn’t make my mistake. It plays broadly where it needs to, largely with the male characters – the unassuming smiling Orgilus (Brian Ferguson) and the madly protective Bassanes (Owen Teale), the old and ailing King Amyclas (Patrick Godfrey) and the simple soldier Ithocles (Luke Thomspon) – and focuses in on the corseted and desperate women of the play. Penthea (Amy Morgan), married against her wishes, and shut up indoors, Euphrania (Thalissa Teixeira), the sister of Orgilus, who with bitter irony makes her promise that she will never marry without his express consent, and Calantha, the princess, whose final moments give the play its name, but not before she establishes a future for her kingdom. The production gives these three characters the prominence that I expected to belong to Orgilus, and though the text does not give them room to express themselves and for psychology rather than reaction to creep in, I think this is the production’s strength – its compelling characters are literally walled-in by the words of cartoonish men, winding like clockwork around them, who do not linger in our minds although they stab and spurt and scheme. At the opening of the second half, this is foregrounded by a thematic dumbshow, close to parody, where the women move like broken mechanical ballerinas, and Euphrania dances into place next to her husband-to-be.
This focus on the female characters is supported by the costumes, supervised by Lorraine Ebdon-Price. The male characters are largely costumed as appropriate to their distance from courtly affairs – the court is Jacobean, and the soldiers are Spartan. But with the women it is slightly different. Euphrania is first seen in loose robes and a belt appropriate to the play’s setting in Sparta, but after her promise to her brother she is seen in the tighter Jacobean dresses we are used to seeing on the Globe stage. Penthea and Calantha are always seen in these dresses, caught as they are in their prescriptive roles, until the all-too-brief night scene where they are finally together, where they are free in their nightgowns as in their discourse.
There are also two significant corsets – one which Penthea is forced into in the first dumbshow as she marries Bassanes, made to look as if it is made of iron, and the last a golden contraption, mirroring the golden armour of the king, for Calantha to squeeze into, as she takes the throne and the centre stage at the end of the play, almost holding her heart in place as she puts the affairs of state in order before the final tragedy of the play overcomes her. Only the women feel, and when we look to them, The Broken Heart is not ridiculous.