Equivocation – Telling the truth in difficult times
“Equivocation” comes to Seattle from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. It was first developed and staged there and now it’s come to Seattle . A friend of ours saw it in Oregon and said that it was the best play he’d ever seen. Wow - what an endorsement from someone who’s judgment you trust! Well, after that we had to see it and were really glad it was coming to Seattle Repertory Theatre.
The production concerns the Gunpowder Plot, an apparent attempt by some of the few Catholic aristocracy surviving Henry VIII and Elizabeth I’s attempts to remove the Catholic Church from political and religious power in England, to assassinate King James I and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the House of Lords. However, let’s listen to, in Paul Harvey’s words, “The rest of the story!”
Shagspeare is one of the many alternative spellings of William Shakespeare’s name. In “Equivocation” Shag (Anthony Heald) is the playwright and one of the founders of the Globe’s repertory theater troop, now called The King’s Men. They are financed by the recently crowned James I (John Tufts). James was the son of the Catholic monarch, Mary Queen of Scots and he was brought to London in response to Elizabeth ’s failure to choose a successor. The king wants Shag to write a play about the recent Gunpowder Plot; however, James wants the story told in an entertaining manner but with his decidedly narrow point of view and, oh yeah, he wants witches.
This is an astonishing request/requirement, to spin the events that may not have happened, or, if it did, may have happened in a completely different manner. This challenges the artistic and ethical integrity of an artist/playwright. How does Shag please his patron the King without violating the law that plays may not be about current events? How does he write a play to spin the events to the King’s viewpoint, and maintain his integrity as well as his neck? And how in the world does he involve witches in the production?
Then there’s the question, if the Gunpowder Plot happened, how did it work? If the conspirators were tunneling under the Houses of Parliament, where did they get the timbers to support the tunnel? Where did they put the dirt they excavated? How did they acquire enough gunpowder to blow up the building? And incredibly, who did the actual excavation? Did the Catholic aristocracy actually dig the tunnel themselves? That’s doubtful. It’s hard to imagine people dressed in silks, satins and lace digging a ditch, let alone a tunnel. Did they hire laborers to do the dirty work? If so, why were none of them arrested and charged? Anyone who’s seen the movie “The Great Escape” knows that there are many ramifications to any land-moving endeavor, and if those aspects of the job are not considered, the project is doomed.
The playwright (also a Jesuit priest) Bill Cain has considered all these facets of the conspiracy and has produced a play that asks the questions that need to be answered, but usually aren’t, by the powerful. He said that he was inspired and influenced by contemporary American political events. Think of the fictional WMDs and other governmental equivocations to color political choices.
This play has made me think about why things happen the way they do: about who makes the choices that affect my family’s lives (health insurance, employment, education), and the lives of millions of people around the world (world trade, protectionism, financial imperialism, engineered and altered seeds that cannot be saved from one year to the next by the farmer, necessitating buying from brokers each year instead of independently and ultimately being able to provide their own).
The word equivocation comes from 1595, when it was illegal to be a Catholic in England, parishioner or priest. It means “to make a statement that is technically not false, but that cleverly avoids spelling out the truth.” The Jesuit character, Father Garnet (Richard Elmore) defines equivocation as “telling the truth in difficult times.” It’s lying by not giving full disclosure, but it allows the prisinors to not lie directly. It’s wavy, up, down, and sideways selective disclosure.
I loved that the playwright was so good at bringing all the divergent points of view, opinions, and decisions by the mostly historical characters into focus. All the characters were based on real people, but some artistic embellishment is necessary for people layered in historic truth and equivocation. After all, history is written by the winners.
The play is beautifully acted. As the production progresses, we see snippets of other Shakespeare plays being rehearsed: "Hamlet", "King Lear" and finally "MacBeth." We even see the irony of Judith, Shag's daughter, giving a solioquy about how she hates solioquies. She even states that theater and plays are lies, "They have a beginning and an end. That's two lies right there."
Except for Shag (Anthony Heald) and his daughter Judith (Christina Albright), all the actors play multiple characters. The man that plays Father Garnet (Richard Elmore) also plays Richard Burbage, the acting troop’s manager. John Tufts plays Sharpe, a good-looking young actor, as well as James I, and lead conspirator Robert Catesby. Jonathan Haugen plays Nate, one of the actors as well as the powerful Lord Cecil, a pivotal character in the life of the theatre troop and influential advisor to King James. Gregory Linington plays the actor Armin, as well as Cecil’s brother-in-law and the king’s prosecutor of Robert Catesby.
Each actor made me believe completely in his or her character. Cecil, Garnet and Catesby are each so powerfully portrayed that I couldn’t doubt their truths.
Director Bill Rauch has done a masterful job of pulling great performances from the cast and preventing hyperbole from taking over. The timing was spot on.
Christopher Acebo’s set is so versatile and clever. As the play begins, we see actors rehearsing Shag’s latest play. The rounded backdrop looks like a theatre stage. It transmogrifies into a prison torture cell, Cecil’s private rooms (complete with a display of an ermine-trimmed robe and crown), a scaffolding where a man is hung, the hallway of King James’s chambers, and on and on and on. The closing scenes feature photo-imposition of the stalls of the Globe.
The lighting was great at isolating the small places of action and highlighting the drama.
We went to a preview, but I expected nothing less than greatness from Seattle Rep and we were not disappointed. We took our granddaughter Vanessa, who is a student at Seattle Pacific University . She enjoyed the production as well. She had looked it up at the Seattle Rep website and saw the caution about some partial nudity. It was the backside of Elmore as Richard as he changed from his rehearsal costume to his street clothes. She was a little disappointed. She hoped it would be the young actor.
My political rant aside, “Equivocation” was a wonderful production. It runs through December 13. Call the Rep’s ticket office at 1-877-900-9285 or go online at www.seattlerep.org/Tickets/. Keep in mind that they have group rates as well as $10 tickets for young patrons.