By Bill Cain
Directed by Peter Hambleton
Circa Theatre, Wellington | May 24-June 21
The year is 1605, and William “Shag” Shakespeare has been called upon by Robert Cecil, secretary to King James, to commission his writing of a new play about the Gunpowder Plot. Resistant at first, persuaded shortly afterwards, Shag proposes the idea with his company of actors during a rehearsal of his latest play King Lear. The actors feel that Lear is not working, but believe a play about the Gunpowder Plot to be a fantastic idea, and that Shag is the right man to do it. Shag protests that he doesn’t write about real political events, because to do so would blur the boundaries between religion (the arts) and politics. However, the seed has been sown and Shag begins to write. The more Shag becomes absorbed into the story, the more he’s desirous of knowing the truth. What really happened, and is the Government’s description of events truly the only version available? Shag determined speaks with a priest and young prisoner, both of whom have been detained for suspicion of conspiring against the King. These chinwags prove frighteningly revealing for Shag, as the safety of his own life becomes at stake. Write the truth and risk death, or write Government propaganda and sacrifice creative license and integrity. It’s a dilemma that seems to have striking parallels to our contemporaries now, as it did 400 years ago. To equivocate might be the only way to resolve Shag’s predicament.
With Equivocation, Bill Cain has served up a feast of ideas platter in this Wellington Circa performance, indeed. Thought-provoking and full of rage, Peter Hambleton’s production allows the text to free flow and fill the space with language. The minimalist design is testament to this very character-driven piece of theatre, four of the six actors performing multiple roles. Although not always sharply defined in physical and vocal demonstration, the ensemble works like a method machine, ready to pounce on each other at their opposite’s offence. The amount of dialogue in this production is insanely profuse. I wondered whether more attention to timbre and tempo would have withheld the occasional zoning out from grace. Donna Jefferis’s stunning costume design and Andrew Foster’s minimal set design challenged the actors to transform their stage into many places. I really enjoyed the back and forth between open rehearsals of King Lear, Macbeth, and the Gunpowder script to the company switching back to themselves as actors. Given that this was a period piece, a more enriching study of character movement would have helped to distinguish who was playing whom. Forgive this dear theatre-lover, but I did sometimes find myself drowning in the abyss.
A story for our times? I couldn’t help but be reminded of the heavyweight super powers selling their cowardice foreign policies to their vulnerable constituents. And given that this year is election year in New Zealand, perhaps we as a voting audience should be reminded of the necessity of reading between the lines and being passionate about seeking the truth. Or at least being on the other side of an “equivocation.”