NO STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS: 600 YEAR OLD SEX CRIME COMES TO TRIAL
It is the year 1399. In dim light, great John of Gaunt lies on his funeral bier awaiting burial in St Paul’s. Before him Geoffrey Chaucer and his resentful amanuensis Adam Scriven conduct a quarrel. It resolves into a trial of the old man for a rape which took place nearly twenty years earlier. His patron is dead, and Adam feels that celebrity has protected the poet for too long so this is the time for a reckoning of the old sexual crime. Years before, powerful friends and money meant he got away with it Topical, eh?
This is a two-night curiosity, past now, but an interesting experience to share the great Inn’s “Revels” on a night they took the form of a play presented by two veterans of the form: author Garry O’Connor (who wrote the novel Chaucer’s Triumph, about the real historic case) and director Nigel Bryant. The gilded and grand Great Hall stuffed with lawyers , plus a few of us legal ignorami, plays the jury. And once we had pronounced the defendant Not Guilty, it was revealed that on the first performance the night before, he was found Guilty. Which denotes, at least, a remarkable achievement of balance.
Or possibly a different audience attitude to changing legal rules It seems that in the 14c a man could not be convicted of “Raptus” if the woman got pregnant, because it was rather prettily believed that only her enjoyment could create a child. And it does transpire in O’Connor’s version that Cecilia Chaumpaigne, the supposed victim, was having a voluntary affair with Chaucer, but was just furious that he approached her during a naked bathe at a time she knew she was fertile. All sorts of issues, human and legal, arise out of the attempt to untangle questions of human behaviour in the least rational of its activities.
Anyway, we let him off, but the story – told by himself, his wife, Adam, and the girl (briefly joined by the corpse of Lord John reviving from the bier) has an ancient, intricate humanity which fascinates, though it is more like a radio play than a fully-staged drama. Chaucer is Ian Hogg of the RSC, giving it all the depth of likeable fallibility and self-awareness one would expect in the feeling and mischievous author of the Canterbury Tales; Scriven as Stephen Tomlin radiates a skinny furious energy, and Alice Bird’s Cecilia is his strong, sharp, self-willed lover and accuser. Sarah Neville as the scornful Mrs Chaucer is a professional, but the two others (including the roused corpse of the grandee) are lawyers.
Altogether, a play which could either grow into full theatre, or work on radio. And I like Chaucer’s prescient sideswipe at the future porn industry – “Are they who feed on filth any better than those who commit it?”