Shakespeare under pressure in ‘Mortal Terror’
The work of Shakespeare the playwright is omnipresent, the life of Shakespeare the man visible to us only in tantalizing glimpses.
That leaves plenty of running room for the imagination of writers such as Robert Brustein. The premise of Brustein’s seriocomic “Mortal Terror,’’ now premiering at the Modern Theatre under the direction of Daniela Varon, is that one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, “Macbeth,’’ was written not in a burst of inspiration but rather under royal compulsion.
But inspiration kicks in once Will picks up his quill pen in “Mortal Terror,’’ a witty and worldly consideration of the compromises made in the name of art, the abuses of power perpetrated in the name of ideology (in this case, the ostensibly divine right of kings), the violence committed in the name of religion, and the multifarious forces that converge to create that mysterious thing called theater.
Brustein, the founder and former artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, has spoken of the immense enjoyment he took in the writing of this play, the second in his Shakespeare trilogy (the first was “The English Channel’’). It comes through in Brustein’s Stoppard-like marriage of wordplay to ideas, and in the inside theatrical jokes threaded through “Mortal Terror.’’
When Shakespeare (Stafford Clark-Price) tells other playwrights he has begun work on a drama about a regicidal Scottish nobleman named Macbeth, one of them immediately shushes him, exclaiming that that particular name must not be pronounced aloud. When fellow playwright Ben Jonson (Jeremiah Kissel, excellent as usual) learns that Shakespeare may be on the verge of receiving a commission to write a play for the king, Jonson positively palpitates with envy.
But even as Brustein thrusts us into the world of England in 1605, complete with quasi-Elizabethan dialogue, he sketches parallels to modern-day America. (Perhaps that explains the otherwise mystifying scarcity of British accents among the cast?) There is a religiously inspired terrorist plot to bomb what conspirator Guy Fawkes (John Kuntz) describes as “both towers’’ of the Houses of Parliament, and a governmental response that extends to the use of torture, euphemized by King James (Michael Hammond) as “advanced interrogation procedures.’’
Any resemblance between the king, whose certitude on matters political and metaphysical is unencumbered by a scintilla of intellectual curiosity, and former president George W. Bush, is, one assumes, purely intentional. King James summons Shakespeare and orders him to write a play that will legitimize the king’s right to the throne by vindicating the Stuart succession. “You validated the royal rights of the Tudors for Elizabeth,’’ the king tells him. “I want you to do the same for me and the Stuarts.’’
The king, who has an unshakable belief in witches, also demands that Shakespeare help convert the British populace into sharing that belief by working witches into the story line of his Scottish play. Seeing no choice, the playwright reluctantly assents, but as he plunges into the task of writing “Macbeth,’’ the play inflames his imagination and haunts his dreams, enclosing him in what he calls “a mighty grip.’’
Shakespeare is also beset by political pressure from foes of the king. A Catholic rebellion is brewing against the Protestant monarch, and others also chafe at his wayward reign. When Sir John Harington (Dafydd ap Rees) urges Shakespeare to write a play denouncing King James, the playwright offers a less-than-stirring reply: “I am a dramatist, Sir John, and dramatists do not take sides. Their characters do. I simply record the discord in blank verse.’’
That passivity is evident in Clark-Price’s portrayal of Shakespeare as a man not unlike others except for his extraordinary gifts. His performance would benefit, though, from a sharper focus and a stronger sense of the genius within. Clark-Price is at his best in summoning Shakespeare’s simultaneous attraction to Georgia Lyman’s Queen Anne and his determination to fight that attraction. Lyman delivers a compelling, nicely modulated performance as a woman whose coolly enigmatic surface barely conceals her anger, grief, and stifled ambitions.
As Robert Catesby, the queen’s lover and a prime instigator of the Gunpowder Plot, Christopher James Webb is solid, if overly reliant on a fixed, glowering expression. Kissel imbues Jonson with just the right combination of jealousy and admiration for a writer whose gifts he knows far surpass his own, while Kuntz moves deftly between the roles of Fawkes and John Marston, a satirical playwright with a weakness for alliteration.
Brustein’s own love of language, and his skill in using it, furnish ample reason to see “Mortal Terror’’ and to look forward to the trilogy’s final play, “The Last Will.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.