The Lady’s Trial by John Ford. Edward’s Boys, directed by Perry Mills. Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, 26 September 2015. (Upper Gallery, CA1)
This is the first known production of The Lady’s Trial since the seventeenth century, and that is not surprising because it is extremely difficult to perform. It is Ford’s last known play, and in it his aesthetic of reticence reaches a perverse apotheosis which means that the more interesting and more dramatically crucial a character is, the less they say. There is plenty of emotion in The Lady’s Trial and there are also plenty of words, but there is a strange disjunction between the two in that the words spoken by the characters are very rarely to do with the emotions they are experiencing, as if language were no longer an adequate medium of expression. When one character, Malfato (George Hodson), does speak clearly and comparatively directly of what he feels, the heroine, Spinella (Joe Pocknell), simply refuses to understand him, as if he had committed a breach of taste by talking of such matters.
Into the void left by the main characters’ silence crowd the subplots. Perry Mills has taken the brave but wise decision not to omit any of these but instead to give them their head, allowing us to see how often they articulate and comment on what the main plot will not. The extent to which the apparently independent subplots are actually conditioned by each other was very neatly caught here by having Levidolche (Jack Hawkins) sob loudly as Trelcatio (Oliver Lloyd) says ‘Happy news!’ These two characters may inhabit entirely different segments of the plot, but in combination they shape the tone and meaning of the play. The interaction also creates a sense that characters in each part of the plot are potentially on display to all the other characters, and it is this which causes everyone to tread so carefully throughout the play and, particularly, in the final scenes. Faced with his best friend’s assertion that his wife has been unfaithful, Auria needs to engineer a public clearing of her name, and to do this he apparently hangs back from defending her himself in such a way that others are manipulated into doing so. In particular, he uses Benazzi as a sort of ‘Mini-Me’ who does and says what Auria himself cannot, and this was nicely caught here by the obvious collusion between Finlay Hatch’s Auria and Dan Wilkinson’s Benazzi. Offically, Auria’s most important male relationship is that with his friend Aurelio (James Williams), but this production allowed us to see how much he keeps from Aurelio yet apparently shares with Benazzi, and even with his ostensible enemy Adurni (Pascal Vogiaridis).
The production emphasised the importance of observation and judgement still further by employing a central square – or pedestal – in order to focus our own scrutiny of the action.
Picture frames surround Spinella at one point, a neat metaphor for the sudden exposure which Aurelio’s injudicious interruption has forced upon her. In a single moment she appears imprisoned by both male judgement and male fantasy.
Even the least promising of the subplots, the courtship of the lisping Amoretta (Ben Clarke) by the vainglorious Dutchman Fulgoso (George Ellingham) and the ludicrous Spaniard Guzman (Dan Power), became hilariously funny in this production, with Guzman in particular joyously channelling Jim Broadbent interpreting for the Spanish Infanta in the Elizabethan series of Blackadder. The effectiveness of these scenes was much enhanced by the clever use of ‘mutes’, students (of both sexes) sitting at the sides of the stage, ostensibly as audience, but occasionally intervening in the action either to sing, or to move or ‘be’ props. Gradually the ‘real’ audience became used to these interventions – until the moment when an unsuspecting (and unprepared) male member of the ‘real’ audience was dragged onto the pedestal. The suitors’ discussion of Amoretta’s private parts was directly focused on those of the poor victim, inevitably to the audience’s delight.
All the individual performances were strong, sometimes very strong, and the play’s complex Latinate language was in every instance superbly spoken. With actors so young, so keen, and facing so difficult a challenge, it would be invidious to single out particular performances, but one casting decision cries out for comment. Spinella was played not by a younger boy who could pass for female in the way that Castanna (Charlie Waters) could, but by an older one whose voice had broken. This both gave her gravitas and foregrounded the extent to which she is a construct of the male imagination (the decision to use period costume was also helpful in this respect), while her beautifully suggested reproach and sorrow made her very silence almost a character in its own right. This may be a play in which the open expression of emotion is pared to the bone, but this very fine production showed that the emotion is certainly there.
Professor Lisa Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University