Compositor E

Charlie Dupré
Omnibus Theatre
Omnibus Theatre

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Tre Medley as John Leason Credit: Dan Tsantillis
Kaffe Keating as Isaac Jaggard, Tre Medley as John Leason Credit: Dan Tsantillis
Company of Compositor E Credit: Dan Tsantillis
David Monteith as Richard Bardolph (1) Credit: Dan Tsantillis

In the year 1623, the first folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays was published. Five compositors set the text into type. Studies have listed them by the first five letters of the alphabet, but it’s believed that compositor E was the young, fairly new apprentice John Leason.

Charlie Dupre’s play imagines John’s (Tré Medley) arrival at the busy workplace and his slight bewilderment at the tasks required. They had to be able to read the rough text, and set it into print “upside down and back to front”, in a way that brings it into line with the margins on both sides of the page.

John looks as puzzled as some of us at what he’s being asked to do, but his impatient boss, Isaac Jaggard (Kaffe Keating), tells him, “it goes in through your eyes and out through your fingers. We haven't got time to understand it.” To get the text to line up with the margins, Jaggard explains that, “we may add a line or drop a line.”

When Richard Bardolph (David Monteith), the major compositor for the shop, becomes ill, John finds himself given the important task of setting into print a section of Macbeth. Unfortunately, the depiction of the witches in the play triggers for him the trauma of losing his mother at the age of five and prompts him to question some of the language used about women. It also stirs up expressions of his hostility to King James I of England, formerly James VI of Scotland, where he was involved in the torture and murder of women labelled as witches.

During much of the performance, three women carry out various print tasks on the thrust stage. They never speak, but their presence brings to mind the three “weird sisters” of the play Macbeth and also serve to remind us that women in that period sometimes worked in print.

Although Jaggard tries to control the workplace, his reliance on the skill of his compositors gives them a collective power to make demands of their own, and for John, that includes actively understanding and engaging with the texts he is being asked to set into print. His final speech to the audience celebrates the ability and right of all of us to do the same.

The show is an interesting if slightly unevenly engaging glimpse of the people who are almost always hidden from history and yet have played an important part in creating the world, including the plays we enjoy and the early rumblings of collective workers' action that has defended our interests.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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