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For those all too wearied by the sight of Benedict Cumberbatch, Prince Charles and most recently, Russell T. Davies taking a hand in many a Shakespearean endeavour, look no further than York's own Theatre, Film and Television Department (TFTV). Grappling with a lesser-known playwright, Professor Michael Cordner is directing James Shirley's 1632 comic masterpiece Hyde Park, his latest in a series of annual 17th century adaptations. An effortlessly amusing and timeless tale of the 'warring couple' that spans a single day - or so I am told on meeting assistant directors Sam Finlay and Nick Newman, and actor Max Manning. Last performed at the RSC and the Barbican in 1987 (information not readily available through the websites of either, but rather my trusty source Wikipedia), the play is virtually out of print - although I did later track down a copy in the library, if anyone is feeling particularly curious.
Sam and Nick certainly seem to relish Shirley's obsolete status and greater still, the chance to "revive something that...is really, really funny". Featured in York's Festival of Ideas, both Cordner's production and a symposium he's heading up with Oxford University Press, hosted by the department, coincide with the 350th anniversary of Shirley's death. Such events, they hope, will put this Caroline playwright back where he belongs - in the public focus, alongside Shirley's Jacobean forerunners: Jonson, Marlowe, and of course Shakespeare.
While a budding group of actors, directors and practitioners are unlikely to refute the Bard's undisputed genius, Nick does concede that "he dominates people's attention a bit too much". I point out the several times that I've seen Shirley's immediate predecessors in action - Middleton's The Witch of Edmonton or Webster's The White Devil, and yet (ashamedly for an English student) reading TFTV's press release for Hyde Park - "Hollywood screwball comedy meets Much Ado About Nothing" - was the first time I'd stumbled across the name James Shirley.
Indeed, Nick is quick to ingratiate his director Mike, and insists that Hyde Park is far more substantial and superior to Much Ado. There might be many a cliched comparison between the couplings of Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick and Shirley's Carol and Fairfield, but Max argues that Shirley's play is wittier and a hell of a lot more confrontational. Laughing at his own pun, he adds, "It's much ado...about talking with each other and the relationships between them rather than rumours and what's circulating." This notion of the 'warring couple' really gets Sam and Nick going, mainly owing to how instrumental Carol is in such arguments. Permissive and outspoken, empowered and enlightened, Carol holds an anomalous position within the context of the play. "She really puts Fairfield through his paces and makes him work... And it's brilliant." Part of this, Sam says, owes much to the complexities of Fairfield and Carol's mutual attraction, whereby it's not just lust or plain emotions that gets their blood running, but a "crazy platonic element [and] this idea of a challenge". Acknowledging that there may be some similarities with The Taming of the Shrew (at the very least to start with) Nick is keen to emphasise that "they both give as good as they get". Reluctant to give any more details about their relationship away, he urges, in typical directorial fashion, to come and see the show.
And yet the dynamics between Carol and Fairfield not only defy the audience's expectations of a 17th century comedy, they allow Hyde Park to be directly accessible to a modern audience. Sam's insistence that "a sex joke is always funny" is met with much hilarity by Nick. Still, it's not only the play's innuendos that she thinks students will lap up. Shirley's characters are identifiable and exude a timeless quality, she argues, whether it's candid women like Carol who elevate themselves within society, or jet set philanderers like Lord Bonville (played by Max). Irrespective of today's implicit (or explicit) class structures, Sam makes a valid point. Such theatrical tropes will always seem familiar to audiences.
As a 'professional playwright', Shirley catered to the upper echelons of society and those privileged enough to attend indoor theatres. Some critics would argue that he oscillates between promoting these elitist values and correcting such abuses of status. Although Lord Bonville wields 'great power' and thus 'great responsibility', Nick is careful not to overstate Shirley's role as social commentator. "He's not holding up [a] mirror saying 'this is what you are', I think he's cherry-picking moments [from the aristocratic society that he's writing for] and having fun." Bonville might be "the greatest thing since sliced bread", proclaims a sardonic Sam, but ultimately his character "gets slashed down to size so nicely, it gives me the chills".
I think Shirley is cherry-picking moments and having fun
Lord Bonville's transformation seems to be something that equally enthuses and frustrates director and actor alike. Gesturing to Max, Sam gleefully admits, "I just love to smack you down. It's my favourite part of the rehearsals." Bonville does eventually uncover his humility throughout the course of the play, but it's bridging the gaps between his character's jocular advances and self-awareness that is most troubling for Max. Lamenting Bonville's lack of redeemable factors, "trying to like [him]," Max notes "and make him likeable...is the hardest challenge." The fact that Bonville's "got manners...he's polite" seems a pretty poor excuse. And yet when pressed on his source of theatrical inspiration, Max's shrewd choice of Tom Hiddleston seems apt in light of his current role. "Hiddleston's performance in The Night Manager, that ability to have the charm constantly turned on and adapt to any kind of situation," he finds wholly enviable. Let's hope that Hyde Park exudes as much charm as its actors aspire to. M
Hyde Park is on at the Scenic Stage Theatre between 9 and 11 June. Tickets can be purchased through www.hyde parktftv.com.