A Yorkshire Tragedy
Attributed to Thomas Middleton
Friargate Theatre, York
Thanks to its status as part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, A Yorkshire Tragedy is one of those plays mentioned in almost every book about the Bard but rarely seen on stage. All credit then to Icabod Productions and director Mark France for giving this strange and compelling work an airing.
Although the play is now usually attributed to Thomas Middleton, A Yorkshire Tragedy resonates with echoes of Titus Andronicus and Richard III. Despite the unevenness of the writing it's easy to see why Shakespeare was once thought to have had a hand in its composition. Imagine if you will an alternative Merry Wives of Windsor, in which the jealous Frank Ford gambles away his inheritance, turns to drink and goes on a killing spree, and you'll have some idea of what to expect.
The play is based on events that took place in Calverley, East Yorkshire, in 1605. Walter Calverley, a young man from a staunchly Catholic family, was made a ward of court at 17 and forced to marry a woman chosen by his wealthy guardians. The marriage was unhappy and within a few years Calverley was heavily in debt; he was also convinced that his three children had been fathered by another man. Four centuries later, the resulting tragedy sounds like something from a modern tabloid newspaper. Calverley killed two of his children, attempted to kill his wife, and went in search of the remaining child with every intention of wiping out his entire family. He was soon caught and executed by the particularly ghastly method of pressing to death.
Icabod's production is an adaptation that includes "additional material devised by the company". It opens with a prologue in which children gather in the woods (shades of The Crucible!) and try to raise Calverley's ghost with a rhyme inspired by the murders. Contemporary accounts of the crime are used to flesh out the narrative.
The author of A Yorkshire Tragedy avoided the use of the protagonists' real names. Calverley is simply the Husband (Jamie Smelt) and his unfortunate spouse the Wife (Lisa Druett). The play has a running time of 80 minutes, not very long for Smelt's character to make the transition from violent drunk to repentant child-murderer, but he succeeds in making the Husband more than a Grand Guignol villain. Lisa Druett gives an equally strong performance as his abused wife, who manages to forgive her husband despite the deaths of her children and her own injuries.
The other three members of the cast - Gemma Head, Ryan Simons and Robin Simpson - play no less than twelve roles between them. Simpson is particularly effective as the College Master, who brings the Husband news of the younger brother thrown into prison as a result of standing surety for his debts.
A Yorkshire Tragedy makes no attempt to tie up the many loose ends in the Calverley case. Did the murderer have any grounds for suspecting his wife's infidelity? Were the crimes committed in a moment of madness or had Calverley been contemplating them for two years, as he claimed at his trial? His acts are as baffling to us as they were to his contemporaries, a state of affairs that makes the play all the more intriguing.
At the Friargate Theatre until 27th April, then touring to Skipton and Otley.
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson