Sunday, 2 October 2016


Southampton's Nuffield Theatre is staging the premiere of Nick Dear's new play, Dedication.  This work gives us a speculative exploration of the possible relationship(s) between Shakespeare and his patron Henry Wriothesley (pronounced 'Rizzley'), the Third Earl of Southampton. The play is constructed on a slender basis of known facts. It's historically likely that when the theatres closed for plague in 1592-3, Shakespeare turned to writing narrative poetry, Venus and Adonis (by far and away his most popular work during his lifetime), then the more austere The Rape of Lucrece. These poems are dedicated in fulsome flattering terms to Southampton, but nothing can really be read into that language, since gushing dedications were the convention of the time, like long acknowledgements pages in academic books today. Beyond the dedications nothing is known of the nature of the relationship between these two men. There is a theory that the sonnets may have been commissioned by Wriothesley's family to encourage him to marry, and the play includes an enjoyable joke for the cognoscenti about the first seventeen sonnets all being basically the same. Henry Wriothesley (HW) has even been proposed as a candidate for the mysterious Mr WH, to whom the sonnets are dedicated by the printer.

The Essex Rebellion, which Southampton was drawn into, is certainly historical fact, as is the curious detail that one of Essex's followers persuaded Shakespeare's company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, to take the mothballed Richard II play and put it on, presumably because it showed an ineffective monarch being usurped. (It's not absolutely certain this was the Shakespeare play.) The company was questioned over this, but Shakespeare was not interrogated by Star Chamber, as he is at the start of Dedication. This is, of course, the play playing with notions of history and reality. As a dramatic opening device, the interrogation of the bard provides a neat entry point into the substance of the play, which shows various parallel scenarios for how WS and HW may have known each other: these range from Shakespeare being hired to help HW brand himself as a cultivated aristocrat among his circle (for my money, the least sexy and most likely option), across a spectrum of intimacy to the two men being passionate lovers (not impossible). The alternative scenarios reminded me of Nick Payne's Constellations, which I also saw at the Nuffield, and Kurosawa's film Rashomon, where the same event is narrated differently by those involved in it. This approach to playmaking is certainly licensed by Shakespeare's own use of  invention in his historical dramas, and his assertion, as a character in Dedication, that history is largely a matter of imagination anyway. And we have an instinct to fill in the gaps which, in this instance, are many. Memory, as WS says at one point in the piece, dies with us. If you don't record what happened, it's gone forever.

I found Dedication an intriguing play. It presents Shakespeare as rather a low-key figure, in his lack of dazzle not unlike the portrait given in Edward Bond's Bingo. It is as if the exuberant wordsmith has been left on the pages of his writings, leaving behind an enigmatic cipher, who could be anyone and anything. HW is of course a spoiled Riot Club sort of brat, at his most compelling when he recounts the horrors of the Irish expedition, which, in real history, he undertook under Essex. The production is directed in the round by Sam Hodges, on a simple rotating set with a central platform (which goes up and down). With no furniture and minimal props, this simple space turned from court to chamber to a street in Shoreditch to a prison cell - a nod to Shakespeare's own theatrical world. Music was provided by four cowled singers (recalling the recent RSC Richard II), but to speak over these the actors were amplified, which shouldn't really have been necessary in a small space. I'd have liked to see a real actor as the Star Chamber judge, whose voice was recorded. Perhaps it was felt this would blur the focus on the duologue. The two actors, Tom McKay (WS) and Tom Rhys-Harries (HW) covered with great skill the script's emotional range, from light-hearted banter to the intensities of love and anger (there is even a swordfight!). A strong work by Nick Dear, and another evening well spent in the Nuffield leaving one with a memorable theatrical meditation on history, memory and art. Looking among the blank spaces of historical record, we ask, what do we know, after all, even of ourselves and one another?

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