To be honest, this play is a bit of a ragbag. Perhaps the version we have isn't complete. RADA cut out the subplot of the soldiers and the ladies in waiting without losing anything; they also cut out the cheeky male servant of Bassanes. But they couldn't tidy it up completely without rewriting an entirely new play.
There are a number of starts that show potential and then get forgotten. For example, in A1S3 Orgilus goes into hiding as a poor scholar and is recruited to act as a messenger between his sister and her lover. This is done with a lot of comedy and it has the potential to be a running comic theme or, alternatively, should Orgilus seek to bar the match, to have a lot of sinister possibilities. That's the last we hear of it. Orgilus approves his sister's match, despite Prophilus being best friend of the hated Ithocles, so the whole episode of his sister's promise and her marriage fizzles out into a sub-plot with no drama left in it.
There are bits that just confuse. In A3S2 Bassanes and Graulis are creeping through the palace at night. Why? They are discovered. So what? They are told off for disturbing Ithocles. Some time later Bassanes 'realises' that Penthea is with Ithocles and thinks that the brother and sister are having an incestuous fling (Ford had a bit of a thing about brother sister sex) and draws his swortd but it really doesn't spring form the tiptoeing in.
Mostly the problems with the play come from the characters sudden changes. Bassanes is a brilliant self-tortured jealous husband, a sort of comedy Othello, but when Penthea protests her innocence switches into an adoring and rueful man. Even one of the servants thinks he must have been gelded. One moment Nearchus is jealous that Calantha has given her ring to Ithocles, the next he is cool that they are getting married. Calantha is dancing when she hears that her father, her best friend and her fiancee are dead; she dances on. Later she explains that she was just messing with our minds. Someone is.
Ithocles has, before the play starts, done something shockingly bad by splitting betrothed sweethearts Orgilus and Penthea and forcing Penthea to marry the older Bassanes. Orgilus seems to forgive him for most of the play but then enacts his bloody revenge. Penthea forgives Ithocles so much that she pleads his suit to Princess Calantha.
This play should be strangled at birth were it not for moments of perfect poetry. There is a lot of spectacle: singing, dancing, murder, suicide and there is comedy but it lacks convincing psychology for most of the characters.
I first saw this on Friday 17th April 2015 at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse (the covered playhouse in the Globe complex) sitting on backless wooden benches; the discomfort rather distracted from my enjoyment of the play.
I saw this at RADA on Saturday 19th March. Luke Brady was a rather comic king Amycles, good humoured even when dying, and a suitably serious Tecnicus. Polly Mirsch was perfect as Penthea in the mad scene; her body language was wonderfully nervous and her delivery extracted the full poetic value of the lines. Tom Edward-Kane as Bassanes had perfect comic timing as he traded insults with Grausis, equally well played by Jordon Stevens. Even the grunts carried pathos and comedy.
Ithocles is a hell of a part. He is a successful soldier who did this very bad thing as a boy and now regrets it. He has to reconcile himself to Penthea, woo Calantha and trade insults with Nearchus and his servant. This is a character more unstable than mercurial, bordering on the schizoid. Thomas Martin was convincingly brash and aggressive and if he never seemed overly upset when his sister died perhaps that reflected the ambitious bastard he was playing.
Matt Gavan was excellent as a sinister and bitter Orgilus. He resisted the temptation to ham up the sinister asides. I don't know how anyone could play the 'nice' Orgilus and convince the audience that Orgilus is deceiving everyone by this act. Gavan's Orgilus was at his best when he killed and when he died.
The director, Iqbal Khan, notes the "challenges of this complex and profoundly moving play". I think RADA has been brave to attempt it and the reward for their courage has been a successful production.
This is a somewhat abbreviated synopsis of a complicated plot
Scene 1: We are in Sparta. Orgilus explains to his father, Crotolon, why he is going to Athens. He had been betrothed to Penthea but when her father died her brother Ithocles married her off to Bassanes. But Bassanes is jealous, believing she will run off with Orgilus (which Orgilus protests he does not intend) and mistreating his new wife because of this. Orgilus believes that his departure to Athens will stop Bassanes being jealous.
Before leaving, Orgilus makes his sister Euphranes promise that she will not get married without his permission. A brother or course is in charge of his sister's sex life.
Scene 2: Ithacles has been victorious in war and Princess Calantha crowns him with a laurel wreath in the poresence of her father King Amyclas. They depart to leave a couple of soldiers Groneas and Hemophil who comically woo (by boasting of their martial exploits) reluctant ladies in waiting Christalla and Philelma. When the scornful ladies leave G and H resolve to 'treat em mean to make them keen'.
Scene 3: Ogilus hasn't gone to Athens but disguised himself as a scholar at the philosophy school of Ternicus. O then sees his sister and Prophilus courting; O walks past with his nose in a book. E admits she loves P but needs to get permission from dad and brother. E fears they are overheard by O but when he realises that O is just a poor scholar (O talks academic nonsense) promises to buy him books if he will act as go-between.
Scenes 2 and 3 could easily be played for comic effect possibly with a sinister undertone, which might make the later descent into revenge and hatred a greater and more shocking contrast.
Scene 1: This is a brilliant scene. The two servants are both very funny and very astute. Bassanes, the jealous husband, tells Phulas his servant to block a window to prevent his wife lusting; he threatens to harm Phulas is Mrs B (Penthea) receives a letter; the extravagance of Bassanes' threats makes this scene wonderful. Phulas, pretending to be an idiot, tells his the news: multi-coloured beards, dancing bears and dragons and oh by the way there's a new law mandating divorce in cases where the husband becomes jealous. B, who mixes adoration of Penthea with vexatious aggression, has a right old ding dong with her maid, old Grausius, whom he calls a "juggling bawd ... damnable bitch-fox" and threatens to "chop thee into collops". But when all but B and G leave the stage he suborns her into spying on her mistress, a role which she accepts.
Scene 2: Ithocles, successful general, soliloquises on ambition. Armostes and Crotolon enter, arguing, A trying to persuade C to let Euphranes marry Prophilus; C saying they must wait till Orgilus gives permission. I joins the argument, recommending Prophilus but C is bitter and angry, reminding I of the part he played in tsaking Penthea from Orgilus and marrying her to Bassanes. I admits it was a foolish act of a young boy and offers reparation. C agrees that E should marry P.
A load of people now come in: E who agrees with her father C that she will marry Prophilus; B and Penthea, B still suspicious etc; when they go I is left with Penthea and arranges a private rendezvous in the palace grove. Bassanes overhears and is suspicious: "If I be a cuckold and can know it,/I will be fell, and fell."
Scene 3: Prophilus has escorted Penthea to the grove where he leaves her under the 'protection' of the disguised Orgilus. The disguised 'scholar' speaks words of love to Penthea who tells him to get lost. But then O reveals himself. She is torn between her marriage vows and her betrothal love for O. She decides that O doesn't deserve second dibs and she will stay true to Bassanes. She tells him again to go and he goes. Now B comes in with Grausis whom he scolds roundly for falling asleep, so failing in her trust. They meet Penthea and then all go off to see Ithocles who, aparently, has been taken ill.
Scene 1: Tecnicus warns Orgilus against doing something stupid: "let not a resolution/ Of giddy rashness choke the breath of reason." T is acting as the old man who warns the young hero in a fairy tale. But Orgilus is determined to go back to the world. Tecnicus gives a speech warning him that "real honour/ Is the reward of virtue" and "He then fails/ In honour, who for lucre or revenge/ Commits thefts, murders, treasons, and adulteries ... honour must be grounded/ On knowledge, not opinion". O goes and Armostes enters, bringing a casket contain a prohecy of the Delphic oracle; the King summons T to give counsel about it.
Scene 2: Someone sings a song asking whether you can do impossible things such as "paint a thought" or "Rob a virgin's honour chastely?" Bassanes and Grausis are creeping through the palace. Ithocles is with his twin sister Penthea; he is dying. He apologises to her for marrying her off to Bassanes instead of Orgilus. Penthea is bitter, she loved O and is a whore for being married to B when promised to O. She wants I to kill her. I tells her he loves Calantha, princess of Sparta, but C doesn't know it, nor even Prophilus his best mate. Bassanes enters with others and a dagger; he thinks that Ithocles is making advances to Penthea. Ithocles, obviously feeling a bit better, draws his sword. Penthea tells Bassanes she hasn't been unfaithful and he, slightly swiftly and unconvincingly, declares her a chaste goddess and kneels for forgiveness. Ithocles decides that B is unstable and he must protect his sister; lots leave and only B and G remain.
This is getting complicated.
Scene 3: King Amyclas is about to betroth Calanthus his daughter and heir to Nearchus, king of Argos. I, who loves her secretly, and O, who hates I, arrive. I apologises to O for the wrong he has done him and promises to serve him faithfully.
Scene 4: O tells his dad C that he likes and respects Prophilus but that he can't forget that P is I's best mate. C is angry with O and suspicious that he 'came back from Athens' before even being sent for; he suspects O; O lies and tells him that Athens has an infection.
Scene 5: Penthea, forecasting her own imminent demise, asks Calantha to be her executrix and tells C that I loves her.
Scene 1: Nearchus is wooing Calantha, trying to take from her a ring. She throws it on the ground near I who picks it up and returns it. Nearchus and his servant have the hump. Tecnicus has a sealed prophecy for the King and says he is going away forever. He tells Ithocles: "When youth is ripe, and age from time doth part,/The lifeless trunk shall wed the broken heart." He tells Orgilus: "Let craft with courtesy a while confer, / Revenge proves its own executioner." O assumes that T is in his dotage.
Scene 2: Bassanes is sorry for being jealous. Too late. Penthea has gone mad and let her hair down (the stage direction says she enters with "her hair about her ears". In some wonderful poetry she regrets she won't have children, recognises Orgilus as one she once loved and then faints. She hasn't slept or eaten for ten days.
Scene 3: The King Amyclas is dying. He doesn't understand the explanation of the oracle. When Calantha asks to marry Ithocles he assents, even though he had previously planned for her to marry Nearchus. Orgilus, in a sinister aside, notes of Ithocles that :"The youth is up on tiptoe, yet may stumble."
Scene 4: Penthea is dead. Ithocles is caught in a booby trapped chair prepared for him by Orgilus who then stabs him to death.
Scene 1: The remorseful Bassanes is scared of Orgilus
Scene 2: Calantha is dancing. As she does, Armostes whispers that her dad the king is dead. She goes on dancing and he is shocked. Then Bassanes tells her Penthea is dead. She dances on and he is shocked. Then Orgilus tells her Ithocles is murdered. She keeps dancing to the end and he is "thunderstruck". Then she tells the company that she heard these rumours and Orgilus confesses freely he killed Ithocles. She condemns him to death. He chooses to bleed to death; he himself will be the surgeon. He dies.
Scene 3: Calantha, now queen, makes various appointments. Then she puts a ring on the finger of the corpse of ithocles. She kisses him and her heart breaks; she dies. Armostes remembers the prohecy: "The Lifeless Trunk shall wed the Broken Heart".
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57