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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!
Eric Hissom as "Shagspeare." Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom as “Shagspeare.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

It’s London, 1606. William Shakespeare (in the play spelled Shagspeare, or Shag) has just been made an offer he can’t refuse: King James I wants him to write a play about the recently foiled Gunpowder Plot. Shagspeare is leery: it’s dangerous for playwrights to write about current events. Robert Cecil, the king’s ruthless chief advisor, gives Shag the sanitized version of events, telling him to just add some dialogue — and witches. The king wants witches. The rest of Equivocation is about Shagspeare’s struggle to write a play that will please — or at least not offend — the king.

Shagspeare, like any good writer, is working on more than one play at once — specifically Macbeth and King Lear. And, of course, the themes from those works can’t help but invade his commission for the king — as well as those of Equivocation. The word equivocation means, “A statement that is not literally false but that cleverly avoids an unpleasant truth” or, as Father Garnet says in the play, a way “to speak the truth in difficult times.”

Simply put, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed assassination attempt by a group of English Catholics against King James I. The plot intended to kill the king and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. But, as we all know too well, politics and history are never simple. Although Robert Catesby (who is a character in Equivocation) led the plot, there is another name that has gone down in history: Guido (aka Guy) Fawkes who was recruited to execute the plan due to his military background. He was caught while guarding the gun powder. More than 400 years later, British children still roam the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) carrying effigies known as “Guys” and asking passers-by for a “penny for the guy.” Also known as Bonfire Night, families gather to celebrate the defeat of Fawkes and his other conspirators with fireworks, childish rhymes (see below) and bonfires.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.

King James I was first King James VI of Scotland, rising to power at the ripe old age of 13 months. He became King of England and Ireland in 1603, succeeding Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors (like that HBO series). He then ruled the kingdom of England, Scotland, and Ireland for 22 years, often using the title King of Great Britain, until his death at the age of 58.

When Bill Cain began writing Equivocation in 2004, he steeped himself in 16th and 17th century England, but contemporary concerns couldn’t help but creep in—the search for WMDs, Abu Ghraib, and the two wars. “There are many, many questions [from 17th-century England] identical to the invasion of Iraq,” recalls Cain. “And that was a big motive for writing the play. It was about seeing this stuff and going, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got plenty of people dying over there and we’re killing people by the tens of thousands, based upon what was a lie.’”
Used with permission from Seattle Repertory Theatre

Eric Hissom as "Shagspeare." Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom as “Shagspeare.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

Bill Cain spent months researching and writing Equivocation, a play that imagines a crisis in Shakespeare’s creative and personal life. He’s spent more time revising the script for production. Here is the playwright sharing what he’s learned about this immersion in Shakespeare—and about the questions he’d ask him, if he could:

Working on this play about Shakespeare has been a journey into his life and my own life from the perspective of what matters.

From the point of view of history, Shakespeare is invisible. As Equivocation says, “He’s the only major writer whose very existence is a question of debate.” He lived in an age in which there were enormous moral questions, and people who took stands on those questions have left their mark on the world. And Shakespeare was invisible, in that sense.

My question for myself is, do I wish to live an invisible life or do I want to make a mark on the world? When I saw the names of those who had been tortured and killed in connection with the Gunpowder Plot, written on the walls of the Tower of London, I had an immediate sense of the power of commitment of these people—what they were willing to die for and what they were willing to put their names on. Shakespeare was not such a person.

There was a debate when I was in England, “Is Shakespeare a millstone around the neck of British culture?” I think it’s a very good question. There’s a speech in Equivocation that strikes me as apt. Cecil says to Shag (Shakespeare’s name in the play): “You make them happy, but not so happy as to reject their unhappiness. You make them angry, but not so angry as to inspire action. You reduce all of reality to spectacle, making action unnecessary, even impossible. . . . You’ve kept the willing suspension of disbelief and gotten rid of the moral demands.”

Eric Hissom and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Watching Shakespeare is never a call to action. You sit back and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?”

Many scholars are writing now about the “coded messages” in the plays. I’d like to ask Shakespeare, what was the code? Did you believe in God? What did you find sacred? Because you always took both sides of everything, what finally mattered to you? Not where you came down in terms of Catholic or Protestant, but where you came down in terms of speaking truth to power.

You were in an extraordinarily powerful position; you were the king’s playwright. But you were not Lear’s fool; Lear’s fool told Lear the truth. Did you see yourself having that position in the kingdom, and if so, what was the truth you were trying to speak? What if the genius on the king’s payroll had stood up and said, “Enough of these killings.” Yes, you wrote a play called Henry VIII, but in it you don’t tell the truth. Henry VIII killed tens of thousands of people and he’s presented in your play and in the history of England as this jolly old man. What about the murders?

Knowing that whoever wrote the plays was a genius, I wonder what his human life was like, and if he got to those human, personal issues that art is for. Art isn’t a way to disguise; it’s a way to speak. It’s a way to say, in concentrated form, this is what matters to me.

The question of Shakespeare excites me now, rather than accepting him as a given; entering into a dialogue with him, rather than as holy writ. Asking him, Why did you not act? Why are you such a cipher? On the other hand, What was it that you thought was so important that you got up every day and told these stories?

From the 2009 summer Prologue magazine, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s magazine for members. Editor: Catherine Foster

By Dramaturg Jessica Bedford

In an interview with New York magazine, playwright Bill Cain discussed his favorite example of equivocation. It comes from Miep Gies who told the Nazis, treat “We are hiding no one.” On the surface, this a bold face lie. They were in fact hiding eight Jews, including Anne Frank and her family. But on another level, it is profoundly true: they weren’t hiding anyone, what they were actually doing was saving their lives. In his play, Equivocation, Cain presents us with a character, an early prototype of Macbeth, who tells us, “We live between two fires: above – the Sun – /God’s all-seeing Eye – and yet beneath our feet /Another fire burns.” Heaven and Hell. And we live in the tension between – in the grey area, the place where, often, two things are true. Miep Gies was lying and Miep Gies was telling the greatest truth of her life.

Dan Hodge, Sean Lally, and Anthony Lawton in Equivocation. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Dan Hodge, Sean Lally, and Anthony Lawton in Equivocation. Photo by Mark Garvin.

 

I teach Theatre History. When I have a student who is stumped on the order of things, my favorite thing to tell him or her is to look at the themes of the plays. History reveals itself in the themes. Equivocation takes us back to early 1606. King James I of England has a commission for his playwright, William Shagspeare. (This is a historically acceptable spelling of Shakespeare’s name. We’re dealing with a time that’s before the codification of spelling and a largely illiterate society which put more weight in what they heard. In fact, in the extant signatures we have belonging to Shakespeare, he spells his name differently in each one. But I digress…) The commission? Write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, the failed terrorist attempt by thirteen young Catholic men to blow up the Protestant Parliament and Protestant King with it; a play which will live in posterity and become the official version of the events. An official version of the events… You will likely gather from the need for such a version that the “events” are very much in question. There seem to be two realities and Shagspeare, or Shag, is living in the tension between. Despite the historical setting, Equivocation is a very recent play. If I take my own advice and look to the themes, it’s easy to draw parallels: terrorism plots, official versions of events (WMD’s? What WMD’s?), etc. But I think Cain is exploring something more complicated and delicate than just a political message: how divisively black and white contemporary American society has become in its thinking and how dangerous it is to deny that humans really exist in the grey, in the tension between black and white. And Cain recruits Shagspeare into his plot. Instead of a straightforward, propagandistic retelling of the Gunpowder story, casting Guy Fawkes and Garnet as evil terrorists and the foiling of their attempt a victory for the powers of good, what does Shag write for his king? Macbeth: the story of a man ambitious above his station, complicit in regicide and its tragic and horrific consequences both for the country and the murderers. I leave it to you to look for the equivocation in that choice.

Ian Merrill-Peakes as Richard Burbage playing Macbeth as Sean Lally and Dan Hodge look on. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ian Merrill Peakes as Richard Burbage playing Macbeth as Sean Lally and Dan Hodge look on. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Equivocation is a play written about the writing of a play, set in a theatre (Shag’s Globe) which you will see in a theatre (the Arden’s Arcadia Stage). It’s more than a little bit what the scholars would call “meta.” But with this production, the layers don’t end there. Ian Merrill Peakes, who played Macbeth at the Arden last season, will play Richard Burbage, a member of Shag’s company, who was the original Macbeth. Richard Burbage was the son of actor and theatre manager James Burbage. Ian Merrill Peakes is the son of actor and former artistic director John Peakes. James Burbage owned and ran The Theatre, the first permanent English theatre, so Richard grew up in a theatre. John Peakes founded and ran the BoarsHead Theatre, a prominent regional theatre in Lansing, Michigan, so Ian grew up in a theatre. Kind of amazing, right? Joining Ian as the remaining players in the King’s Men are Tony Lawton, Dan Hodge, and Sean Lally; some of Philly’s favorite sons doing virtuosic turns in multiple roles. Longtime Arden favorite Eric Hissom rounds out the company as Shag himself and Arden newcomer Campbell O’Hare joins as Judith, Shag’s daughter.

Equivocation is a rich many-layered piece of theatre, and it places tremendous faith in the passion and intelligence of its artists and its audience. It requires both artists and audience to sit forward rather than back, to engage and to think. Terry Nolen, the designers and actors of this production have endeavored to lift the play’s language, bringing it electrically to life, and to bring the audience face to face with its own assumptions about truth. I hope you enjoyed the show.

©2009 Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. For tickets, call 215.922.1122.
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