“How can there be anything true about a play?” Judith Shakespeare asks her father, at the beginning of Equivocation. Just by having a beginning and an end, she argues, a play is unlike reality, and is all the more unbelievable, moreover, for pretending that everyone has a secret life. Shakespeare may have said “Truth is truth/To the end of reckoning,” (Measure for Measure) but in Bill Cain’s provocative play the search for what constitutes truth is complicated.
Equivocation, set in 1606 London, shortly after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (in which a number of Catholic conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, were accused of trying to blow up King James I and Parliament), suggests that history is a version of truth told by the winners. The play imagines that Shag (as Shakespeare is known) has been asked by Robert Cecil to create a play based on the official Crown version of the Plot. When Shag and the rest of the King’s Men attempt to turn the propaganda into theater it quickly becomes obvious that the official version not only lacks dramatic tension, but also seems rather unbelievable, especially once Shag is able to question several of the accused conspirators. Under pressure to produce a play for King James, but unable to say what he believes to be true, Shag ends up interpolating aspects of the Gunpowder Plot into Macbeth and performing it for the King (who believed he was a direct descendant of Banquo).
In Equivocation, the characters of Shag and Judith are played by single actors, but the other four actors play many different characters, sometimes even switching roles while onstage in the same scene. It is a tribute to the specificity and strength of the acting that several of us who saw this performance did not realize until later discussion that the same actor (Michael Countryman) played both Richard Burbage and the Jesuit priest, Henry Garnet.
John Pankow‘s Shag is reassuringly workmanlike and more of a flawed Everyman than one might expect. He can speak with authority, particularly in the theater, but is more often beset by doubts and struggling for direction. While his lack of self-awareness and poor treatment of his daughter may be seen as believable reminders of his human foibles and the effects of his cultural milieu, there is less evidence for his genius, beyond the awed respect of his friends (and some of his enemies). Robert Cecil cynically assumes that Shakespeare’s words will survive because of his ability to flatter everyone, suggesting that in the future his plays will become the perfect civic religion: “People will go to your plays as they used to go to church. They will emerge essentially unchanged but feeling somehow improved.” These descriptions, while apt and witty commentary on a modern view of Shakespeare, do not provide much personal insight to the man himself, and while this play is centered on Shag, he does not always come to life as well as some of the other characters.
Charlotte Parry plays Judith, Shakespeare’s sarcastic, melancholy daughter, with fine restraint and dry wit. She does not overplay the ending with its provocative suggestion about the recurring themes of Shakespeare’s final plays. The hints of electricity between Judith and Sharpe were also well handled.
With all the excellent acting in this Manhattan Theatre Club production, I found it most difficult to tear my gaze away from the characters played by David Furr. As Sharpe, the hot-tempered but gifted youngest member of the King’s Men, as a childish but willful King James, and as the broken Thomas Wintour, Furr’s energy and charisma were palpable. When switching between so many roles, even the deftest actor can struggle not to appear to be “acting,” but as Sharpe, in particular, Furr inhabits the role, bringing him to life with a myriad of small, engaging details.
Remy Auberjonois was particularly enjoyable for his physical portrayal of Armin, the comic actor who is thought to have inspired several of Shakespeare’s later fools.
David Pittu‘s scheming and tortured Robert Cecil was a vivid portrayal, although the play creates something of a straw man with his character—more bogeyman than complex king-maker.
For all of the complicated plot twists and myriad historical and literary references, Equivocation is immensely engaging from the very first scene. That this energy never flags is due in large part to Garry Hynes‘ directing, which handles the rapid scene changes in creative and subtle ways. The delicate balance between moving the story forward while weaving in complicated historical plot twists falters only when contemporary political messages move to the fore. This happened most obviously in the repeated torture references, which while likely apropos to current events, felt overemphasized (King James says, “We are a country of laws. There is no torture,” even while expecting the alleged assassins to be tortured). Cecil’s overwrought scenes of self-doubt also seemed disproportionately melodramatic. With a new play, it is difficult to tell how much of this kind of emphasis is chosen by the playwright or the director, but in these scenes there seemed to be an agreed-upon message being sent, which from the perspective of the audience felt contrived.
That being said, the central questions posed by the play do have timeless application, and while some of the historical theories being suggested seem to be a contemporary attempt to redress certain perceived imbalances in the victor’s view of history (specifically the Protestant vs. Catholic struggles for power in Elizabethan England), Equivocation is primarily about how complex the search for truth can be. The title of the play refers to Henry Garnet’s A Treatise of Equivocation, which was found in the possession of one of the alleged assassins. In the play, the priest tells Shag that Equivocation means learning how “to speak the truth in difficult times,” and that in order to do so, one must “answer the question beneath the question, the question that is really being asked.”
One of the explorations of truth-telling in the play is the role of the art and community of theater in interpreting and applying truth. The best scenes in Equivocation take place in the company of the King’s Men, whether in hashing out their work and its relationship to the political maneuverings around them, or in the bits and pieces of performance shown. It is a powerful reminder that when it comes to truth-telling, the art and poetry of theater can be one of the best ways to make sense of violent and bloody acts of history.