Speaking Like Magpies

Frank McGuinness
RSC at the People's Theatre, Newcastle
(2005)

The Equivocator and Guy Fawkes
Henry Garnet and King James I

This play, the last to be performed in the RSC Newcastle season, is central to the Gunpowder season because the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is central to the play. But although it is central to the play, it is not what the play is about. McGuinness weaves themes of equivocation, language and belief around the Plot but the Plot itself is passed over very quickly. As we are told right from the first speech by The Equivocator, a Pan-like figure, we are told a story whose outcome we already know. No surprises!

We watch - in some kind of afterlife - Mary Queen of Scots forgiving (perhaps that last word should be in quotes, for it is a dubious kind of forgiveness) Elizabeth I as she lies dead. There is a scream and the "corpse" awakens in a panic, only it is not Elizabeth at all but James, son of Mary, who is just about to be told he is now King of England as well as Scotland.

The play is made up of fifteen scenes, each with its own title, such as The Two Queens, James, A Chaste Wife, The Garden, Conscience and The True Friend. Whereas the earlier scenes do tend to flow into each other, there are some disconcerting leaps once the play gets underway. It is almost as if each scene is a playlet on its own, a kind of cameo with its title suggesting the content: the setting changes, different facets of the King's character are presented to us, new characters appear, new themes emerge. It's as if McGuinness is saying to us, "Let's look at it from this point of view. Now this. And lets change the focus again."

It is at once complex and impressionistic, yet with a simplicity that is reminiscent of the morality plays.

What is constant, however, is the Protestant-Catholic divide, and, although James' expulsion of the Catholic clergy from England is not specifically mentioned, one its effects - the concealment of Jesuit priest Henry Garnet as the gardener of Lady Anne Vaux - assumes major importance.

McGuinness does not only use the figure of The Equivocator as a link between the play and the audience, functioning occasionally as a kind of chorus commenting on what is happening, but also as a kind of supernatural character (only those whom he wants to can see him), leading those he speaks to in the direction he wants them to go (or, perhaps, like Macbeth's witches, in the direction they want to go).

It is a very complex and multi-layered piece and not one which lends itself to easy explanation in the space of a review, even one as long as this promises to be! Nor does its intellectual impact make itself felt immediately. It requires thought, for it is only on reflection that what seemed to be something of a mishmash of styles (ranging from naturalistic dialogue through a welcome of the King to England with what seems to be a combination of primitive fertility rite and Mummers' play to a deeply sinister masque) begins to shape itself into a meaningful whole.

What is in no doubt, however, is the impact of the staging and production. With pyrotechnics, music and song, very atmospheric lighting and superb acting, the play exhibits all the high production qualities which have been the signature of this whole RSC season. William Houston gives us a James I who is powerful but erratic, whilst Nigel Cooke's Robert Cecil has depths which go beyond the first impression of a cunning spy-master. Fred Ridgeway nicely captures Henry Garnet's anguish, both physical and mental, but the real "find" of the play is Kevin Harvey as The Equivocator. Olivier-nominated for Yellowman at Liverpool and Hampstead, this is his debut season with the RSC, and his vocal and physical dexterity made his Pan-like character both charming and sinister.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production when it transferred to the Trafalgar Studios, London

Reviewer: Peter Lathan