— Jerry Mackay, Shawn Macdonald and Anousha Alamian. Photo: David Bloom.
Bard on the Beach has inaugurated its newly named studio tent, the Howard Family Stage, with a rare non-Shakespearean offering. American playwright Bill Cain’s Equivocation imagines that Shakespeare was commissioned by King James' first minister, Sir Robert Cecil, to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, the failed conspiracy by radical Catholics to blow up Parliament and kill the King.
Cain, who founded the Boston Shakespeare Company, knows his Bard. Equivocation is dense with Shakespeariana, exploring Will's relationship with his children, the artistic differences within his theatre company, and the making of Macbeth.
Cain primarily focuses on Shakespeare's politics: how the playwright reacts when challenged to write not about the past but about current events. And what happens when he begins to dig into the details of the Gunpowder Plot and discovers that things are not exactly what they had been made to seem. The victors are writing history and want Shakespeare to immortalize their version of it.
This is not CSI: Stratford. It's a literate, complex script that assumes we know our Shakespeare, English history, and even some theology. Michael Shamata directs it with flair, and Bob Frazer sizzles in the central role with red-hot performances from a couple of other Bard regulars.
But not all the acting rises to the requisite temperature. And Equivocation sometimes shows the strains of too much plot and theme, especially in the long, shapeless second act.
Set in 1606, Equivocation opens with Shakespeare's company rehearsing one of the mad scenes in King Lear. The actors don't really get it. They want sword fights and heroes. Actor-manager Richard Burbage placates them: "If we can get through his comedies-don't-have-to-be-funny period, we can get through this." (Cain's characters thankfully speak contemporary colloquial English, not faux-Elizabethan.)
When Lord Cecil tells Shakespeare that King James wants him to write "The True Historie" of the Gunpowder Plot, the playwright at first refuses: he doesn't do contemporary politics. But a company called The King's Men can't really turn down their patron. Besides, they're working actors and the money is good.
After struggling with a first draft that goes nowhere, and with personal issues--Cecil hates him because Shakespeare modelled Polonius after Cecil's father-- Shakespeare gets curious about some unexplained details. How did the plotters dig a tunnel under the parliament building? What did they do with all the soil? He insists that he can't write the play without talking to the jailed conspirators, and Cecil finally agrees to let him.
Shakespeare's interview with Tom Wintour answers many of his questions. Cecil's fingerprints are all over the plot. Wintour hasn't exactly been framed but he has been brutally tortured and will be even more brutally executed. This powerful scene invites comparisons with so-called terror plots, terrorists and torture in our own era.
Shakespeare feels compelled to incorporate some of what he has learned into his play. But can he? His company members aren't interested in testing the King's limits on free speech.
In another fine scene he meets with Father Garnet, the priest supposedly at the centre of the conspiracy. Garnet eloquently defends himself and explains the principle of equivocation: the ability to somehow honestly avoid telling a lie while not damning oneself with the truth. That's just what Shakespeare needs to be able to do, caught as he is between political necessity and the hard place of his own conscience.
Through a clever, complicated series of events, we end up watching Cecil and the King watching Shakespeare's company perform Macbeth, a play that reflects upon them both. Shamata's witty direction is especially evident here as the four actors who play the actors in Shakespeare's company slip seamlessly back and forth between their roles in the play and in the plays-within-the-play.
With a thick Scottish brogue Anton Lipovetsky delights as gleeful, playful, cackling King James, and he shines as the battered true believer Wintour. Gerry Mackay provides a powerful presence as dignified Father Garnet and as Burbage. Shawn Macdonald does a wicked Lady Macbeth among other parts.
The plum role in Equivocation, besides Shakespeare, is Robert Cecil, the play's most Shakespearian character, a ruthless Machiavellian sadist. Anousha Alamian's Cecil is scary in places, and his twisted foot gives him a grotesque physicality. But Alamian rarely attains the magnitude of sheer malignancy he needs as antagonist to Frazer's passionate, angry, fearful, confused Shakespeare.
Then there's Judith, Shakespeare's daughter. The play's only woman, she appears from time to time to comment on playwriting and lament her father's neglect of her. Shakespeare, it seems, never got over the death of his son, Judith's twin.
The play sets us up for a big psychological and emotional payoff here. But Cain has seriously underdeveloped the role and Rachel Cairns so severely underplays Judith that her character and this entire subplot pretty much disappear amid the sound and fury of the finale.