‘Cool your codpiece!’

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to see actors in the Renaissance making it up as they went along. On Sunday I at last had the chance, or at least the chance to come as near to it as we moderns will likely be allowed to. ‘Read Not Dead,’ a monthly series of rarely-seen plays from Shakespeare’s contemporaries, is being presented as part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations — commemorating his death in 1616. The actors are presented with the script early in the morning, prepare their lines and actions during the day, and by evening, are ready to read before the public.

I knew that it would be a reading, but I was surprised by the level of dynamism with which each actor nonetheless infused their role. Action kept the play moving along, and the timing and coordination of each entrance and exit was nearly always exact. In the intimate setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a building that feels tall due to its close circumference, the unpolished nature of this energetic performance shone.

Tim McInnerny plays Antonio, the lead, whose beautiful wife Maria is the object of lusty admiration from Mercury, his closest friend. Intent on allowing their intimacy, he adopts an oddly complicated plot to bring them together. (Those who remember McInnerny from Blackadder may wonder if he adopted one of Baldrick’s cunning plans.) Maria catches on quickly, and as the frustrated Mercury cries ‘He that invented honesty undid me!’ the couple deceive each other in an uneven battle of wits, Antonio brilliantly outmatched.

Meanwhile, a familiar setup of secret elopement, parental disapproval, and riotous friends provides another plot, which meets the first in occasional places. Viola and Ricardo’s escape from her father’s watchful eye goes awry when Ricardo gets drunk with his crowd of ne’er-do-wells on the very night he is to meet her. The young woman’s subsequent misadventures are comical, but not without a touch of pathos, at the thought of how easily they could have been avoided. They are also infused with an uncomfortable reality: Viola’s beauty and virtue may be her greatest assets, but they are also her greatest risks. Greed and lust are around every corner, something that must have rung too true to women even in its own day. Luckily, having run off with a handful of jewels, she can pay off any unsavoury characters, but her danger and fear as a young woman alone at night is treated as genuine — she has nowhere to go, after she flees her father’s house.

Being an English play of the Renaissance, Irish accent jokes abound, bawdy drinking scenes (and subsequent pain and regret) are played with panache, and letters are the source of both jokes and embarrassment. More unusually, there is no clear antagonist — the characters are, by and large, in conflict with themselves, whether it is Mercury’s sense of honour, or Ricardo’s excessive love of drink. In the end, Antonio, Maria, and Mercury settle things happily, and Ricardo finds Viola and is not instantly, but quickly, forgiven. The occasional stumble or throw-in line added a touch of improvisation, and quick plays to the audience add to the humour.

Would the same performance, however well-executed, have worked in another venue? It’s difficult to say, as the theatre is possessed of its own character which works its way into the lines. Seated in the upper gallery, directly above the stage, we had an imperfect view, but were able to follow the action. The Jacobean look of the room worked to the show’s advantage, with the real sense of reviving something directly from its original time, not of brushing off the dust and trying to make out its faded letters, but of winding it up and setting it once more in motion.

There are several reasons why such a play might not have been performed much in its day. The plot of eloping lovers gone wrong had been played out before, and far more sympathetically. The moral that adultery with knowing consent can be encouraged was likely met with skepticism, at best, condemnation at worst. Finally, the ploy to bring Mercury and Maria together seems needlessly tangled, though comical all the same. It is a play that might not be overdue its triumphant revival, that may well lose a bit of its tumbling charm through excessive polishing. Perhaps a lively, half-rehearsed, script-in-hand edition shows The Coxcomb at its best.

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