Sir Robert Cecil, a sometime spymaster for King James I commissions a recalcitrant Shagspeare (Shakespeare) to write a play on the Gunpowder Plot. So it begins. Shagspeare is caught between a rock and a hard place: either reveal his sympathies to the conspirators and lose his head or write a patriotic propaganda piece and sell out his Muse. Like so many things in life, he confronts an either/or situation when he would rather see a both/and proposition. To get around the either/or catch-22, the players equivocate. Hence the title. In the main, Equivocation really isn.t a play but is rather a play about a playwright struggling to write a play. Metatheatrical. A reflection of a reflection of reality. A perfect play for clever audiences. That it had a successful run in Victoria is something Victorians can be proud of.
Now, the play within a play structure of Equivocation allows dramatist Bill Cain to do a few things which would be more difficult in a more conventional straight shooting drama. Since dramatists are frequently busy with life as they compose (and not, as the Romantics would have it, withdrawn in some cave or out in the wilderness communing with nature), Cain adorns the primary story with secondary plots from Shag.s life. If the main theme is the ‘write me the play’ and ‘I can.t write the damn play’ banter between Cecil and Shags, there are also all the other things going on in Shags life that are brought into the fold: his estranged relationship with daughter Judith, workplace drama within his acting company, and his interviews with the gunpowder conspirators.
The effect of layering plot on subplot overtop demiplot diffuses the flow of the action. Because Cain borrows scenes from Shakespeare, it.s easy to spot changes in the dramatic tempo (especially since he borrows mainly from Macbeth, the most taut of Shakespeare.s plays). There is more dramatic punch when the players play out on the blasted heath the encounter between Macbeth and the witches. More dramatic urgency. The actors move quicker. They speak quicker. They make louder sounds stomping around the stage. Same goes with the storm on the heath scenes borrowed from King Lear. Side by side one can see the dramatic power Shakespeare wields next to Cain. But what Cain gives up in raw power he gains in contemplation and reflection. Reflection on the nature of equivocation (in the conspirator interviews). Reflection on artistic and worldly responsibilities (in the dialogue with members of the acting company). Reflection on the place of the playwright in society (in the dialogue with Cecil). Reflection on the power of drama to sway popular opinion (Cecil.s thoughts on Othello and Merchant of Venice). But note so much of the power of the play comes from the dialogue; the ‘dramatic’ action scenes are largely borrowed from Shakespeare. In a way Equivocation reminds me of Tarantino.s works. Tarantino also layers his works so that the action proceeds herky-jerky. And in between the herky-jerky outbursts is this strange and wonderful dialogue. Like when, right before the concluding scene of Kill Bill, Bill goes on a philosophical rant comparing the place of Superman with Spiderman in the world with Uma Thurman looking on in disbelief. But coming back to Equivocation, this brings us to the character of Judith, who, like Bill in Kill Bill, functions like a mouthpiece of the writer more than a character within the closed confines of a play or a movie.
There is something about Judith. She doesn.t quite fit. She talks about things outside the play which have little bearing on the action at hand (e.g. her distaste for soliloquies). Her manner of speech isn.t affected like that of the other characters–it.s a very natural discourse as though she were talking in her own voice and not an actress upon the Belfry stage. She is aware of the audience and has the capacity to address the audience directly. And she does so with the playwright.s own voice (e.g. at Shagspeare.s wake as the closing of the play). This got me thinking: I wonder if she functions as a chorus?
Before there was drama, there was the chorus. This is going back to sixth or seventh century BC-perhaps even earlier. The chorus would hymn praises to the gods. At some point, one member of the chorus stepped outside of the chorus to address it. That was how the first actor came to be. As things developed, two and three actors would emerge from the chorus to engage it in an antiphonal game of alternating call and response: that moment marks the birth of ancient Greek theatre. In time, the actors took more of a central role and the chorus’ importance diminished to the point where it was reduced into an atavistic tailbone tacked onto the tailpiece of drama. Finally, the chorus altogether disappears. But what the chorus was good at was speaking in the voice of the playwright (to convey, say, some moral the playwright thought appropriate). It could also act as a living wall between the on stage illusion and the off stage reality (the chorus is is aware of both realities and can address the actors from within the play or the theatre-goers outside the play). What I wonder is whether Cain had intended Judith to function as a sort of one woman chorus. That would explain how her character seemed to me to be part of the action yet also curiously aloof and distant to the action. As chorus, she wouldn.t really be a full-fledged individual but could somehow represent the playwright or even the community. If Cain had intended Judith to be a chorus type figure, kudos to him. It.s been awhile since dramatists have put choruses or chorus type figures on the stage (they still do it in operas, so perhaps operas are the true heirs of the ancient stage). The last that comes to mind is TS Eliot when he tried it in Murder in the Cathedral. Because the chorus represents community, there is much to be said about putting the chorus back into drama. Chorus is the all-too-human voice of drama. But it is true, no modern playwright has managed to integrate the chorus into the play successfully. I have a large reward waiting for the one who is able to manage this feat and to make drama whole once again…
Did Equivocation remind you of another historical play by a twentieth century playwright? Some hints. Here.s what I.m thinking of. A play set in England (two generations before the Gunpower Plot). Catholics and Protestants are going head to head. Either allegiance to the king at the cost of selling God out or allegiance to God at the cost of the true king. Plenty of equivocation. Yes, you guessed it: Robert Bolt.s 1960 A Man For All Seasons. Instead of a conscience ridden Shagspeare there is Lord Chancellor Thomas More. Instead of Cecil as the agent of King James, there is Thomas Cromwell as the agent of Henry VIII. Catholic More attempts to maintain his allegiance to Henry VIII who divorces his wife against the wishes of the Pope. This is not unlike Shagspeare.s catch-22 of either writing a propaganda piece or putting his neck on the line. Like Equivocation, there is much psychological storm and stress in A Man For All Seasons but little action. The bulk of the play consists of speeches where More justifies his position by equivocating while Cromwell attempts to get More to turn the wrong phrase in a chess match of words. The one difference between the two-and it is a large difference-is that while the action is diffuse in Equivocation, A Man For All Seasons starts off with one question and puts that question through every variation until the play.s end. It.s power is highly focussed.. The question is, ‘What would you sacrifice for what you believe is right?’. Every character, from More to Rich and from Norfolk to Alice, exists for one purpose: to examine the singular question from different perspectives. I leave you with this question. Which do you prefer? The diffusive Equivocation which manages to combine comedy, satire, history, and tragedy or the laser like intensity of A Man For All Seasons? Are the differences between them a reflection of how audience tastes have changed from 1960 to 2010? Or?
My own feeling is that it is a bit of both. Art reflects contemporary mores. Today we multitask and so too our dramatists multitask the action into many parallel segments. And because we multitask, we don.t like things that are overly complex (since it would be too difficult to do many complex things all at once). So too perhaps the distaste of the soliloquy is something thoroughly modern. I wonder if the soliloquy occupies the same position as the rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo in the 1980s. They are both blazing set pieces, full of fire and weeping. Complex creations. It used to be in the 1980s that a song would have two or three solos (think back to Van Halen glory). Now I can.t think of a single song that has come out in the last five years that has any soliloquy-or I mean guitar solo. Funny how the technology and art moves in unison. Times change. And playwrights change with the changing times.