RUFF WORK: AN ELIZABETHAN MORALITY FOR TODAY
This is a devilish cunning ploy from Anders Lustgarten – an impassioned critic of state and social policies, sometimes a bit one-note. Artful to move from the smug tedium of “If you don’t let us dream..” and his better, wrenchingly moving, literal depiction of refugees in Lampedusa , and to turn up unexpectedly in this new context.
For this is the glamorous, pantalooned and be-ruffed and candlelit Elizabethan world of the Wanamaker where one can be tempted to stay cozily safe in history, drawing only psychological messages rather than political ones. Not this time: Lustgarten’s period piece, spectacularly set by Jon BAusor and directed by Matthew Dunster, may take place in the court of Elizabeth I and her (real) spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, but it is mischievously and cleverly designed as a full-on satire of the empire-building instinct of the intelligence and propaganda world, from Le Carré to Fake News.
The parallel is everywhere. There’s the sense that as new money and people flow to London, so do new heresies and threats; the way that spooks can spook governments into fresh paranoia, and the feeling that tricky populations can be quietened by “a royal wedding, and setting the poor against recent immigrants”. It’s there in the determination of Walsingham to watch as Burleigh says “every beer-maker, washerwoman, steeplejack and kitchen drudge”. It is there in the paranoid conviction we all have from time to time, that some near-miss terrorist attacks are faked by the security empires for their own sake. This happens, splendidly, in one moment as a drunken innkeeper takes the fall. Another sharp parallel is in the cynical decision to recruit cheap troops from agricultural labourers starving after the Enclosures. How many modern squaddies are from care homes, from hopeless backgrounds, from unemployment?
It moves along well, with only a few moments of Pythonesque absurdity: notably in a trapdoor-and-dagger meeting of double-double agents. But there’s real darkness in whispers from the darkness as the spymaster reads dispatches, and in the crazy chill of his conviction that Catholics are demons. Visually, it is a treat: candelabras and braziers, torches and lanterns and dimly seen nooses , a headman’s axe, a rack; candles dramatically used with a fine threatening dowsing scene as the first act ends. Lustgarten’s cynical rage about war propaganda is magnificent; when Walsingham has at last persuaded the chalkfaced queen to kill Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Philip Sidney’s plea is that his death shall not be used for propaganda. The second act sees exactly that happening: massive mourning, and eloquent rage from the hero’s daughter “You promised not to use his name to make roisterers in shabby taverns swear oaths to the Queen..you wrapped his bones in a flag and jiggled them to make them dance!”.
This second act is more gratuitously gruesome, not one for younger schoolchildren, with the martyr Southwell on the rack spitting defiance through his screams to make the Guantanamo point about the futility of creating martyrs. At last the Armada comes – fine model ships aflame on a trolley – and the decline of Walsingham is paralleled by the Queen’s cry “Your kind of knowledge does not make us safe, only more afraid”. Burleigh (Ian Redford) predicts jovially that the apparatus of surveillance invented by Walsingham will be with us for ever.
And so it is. That there actually was a real Armada – a serious threat from powerful Spain backed by the Papist south and enemies within – does not deflect our author from his moral. But it’s a terrific play for the Wanamaker, and Aidan McArdle giving Walsingham some poignant final reality. So we can forgive the author’s conviction that Elizabeth I (Tara Fitzgerald) was no virgin queen but well into rough sex with the Tower of London rackmaster and all comers. Boys will be boys.
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