With its title taken from a phrase in Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare, The School of Night examines the 16th-century intellectual circle that counted Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd and Sir Walter Raleigh as members. The play investigates the mystery surrounding Marlowe’s death in 1593 against the backdrop of a politically and religiously divided England. Was he really killed in a barroom brawl, as the history books say? Or do the rumours of espionage, atheism, and homosexuality hint at something more complicated in his ultimate undoing?
First performed in The Other Place at Stratford upon Avon and then at the RSC’s Pit Theatre in London during 1992-1993.
Synopsis by Josh Jacobson
I came to this play having no prior knowledge, except some vague awareness that it was about the death of Christopher Marlowe in mysterious circumstances. On returning home I combed my ancient Britannica for some insight into the circumstances of the play’s veracity and found a confusing, contradictory description of Marlowe and the circumstances of his life and death. I cross-referenced it with the entries on Raleigh and Thomas Kyd and found entries relating to all the characters in the play including Ingram Frizer who is reported as killing Marlowe in ‘self-defence’ and Poley as a double spy and Skeres as an associate and all sorts of references to plots against the Queen and Sir Thomas Walsingham’s role in foiling these as fast as he could. In other words truth and half truth, counterfeit and spies, plots aplenty including the infamous Babington plot of 1586, implicating Mary Stuart.
On stage what a Tour de Force! Never mind the play! and it was worth all the frustration to see such a strong cast, playing with confidence and pace relating well to each other, maintaining their characterisation and concentration, directed with purpose and aplomb. Alan Southgate as the eponymous Marlowe, played him with such energy and assurance that I was left quite breathless at times, he was absolutely right for the part carrying all before him, his jealousy of Shakespeare, and almost, inevitably, writing his own death as if it were a plot in a play. I did feel though that he could have given the character a bit more light and shade, to balance and contrast the enormous explosions of passion that erupted throughout the performance. Dan Breeze as Thomas Kyd was suitably weak and hesitant, giving indications of what would eventually happen, he should have given the character a bit more grit, he was after all a fairly important playwright in his own right. Roger Wallsgrove as Ingram Frizer was less convincing for me, he moved fairly ponderously around the stage, often standing still for quite long periods and blocking the view from where I was sitting. I guess all this was meant to indicate menace but it did the opposite, I felt like telling him to move!
If anything this was the weakness in the production, staging it with audience on three sides meant that all the actors and particularly the director needed to be aware of sight lines to let the audience be part of all the action for most of the time. I was delighted with Chris Janes’ Tom Stone (William Shakespeare) and the relaxed delivery of his lines in a manner that he was able to show the many sides of his character.
The duel was so well fought, so well rehearsed and so convincing in such a small area, a great idea to use the diagonal so congratulations to both actors and Bret Yount. Paul Morton and Fran Copeman gave fine performances as the Walsinghams, although I could not really see how your Sir Thomas could have found time to foil so many plots against the Queen’s life! Rachel Wallace as Rosalinda was quite superb, it is a long time since I have seen such a controlled piece of physical theatre on the amateur stage, she really acted with her whole body and it was a pleasure to watch her performance. I wonder if the casting of Patrick Sunners as a ‘Spanish-looking’ Sir Walter Raleigh was deliberate on the director’s part adding poignancy to the Catholic threat, or not? However he was suitably swash-buckling, but where did he get those filter-tips from? With such painstaking detail in the costumes ( Shelagh Maughan) and the props, mostly (Angela Reiss) and the set (Grant) to give a sense of period and atmosphere, surely they should have used pipes?
David Crook as Poley and Jack Wood as Skeres gave strong performances in relatively unrewarding roles, but Jack came to life as Harlequin and Roger Wallsgrove’s Pantelone was delightful. Spare a thought here for the playwright, why did he include the Commedia? I can only think it was for comic relief, five hundred years too soon!! Wouldn’t Rosalinda also have been a Catholic and fallen under suspicion too? How refreshing to see backlighting being used effectively and the music(Ian Cullen) was so appropriate to the inevitable final tragedy. I thought the water gobo, ever-present and a prescient for the setting of Marlowe’s death was a brilliant stroke. My final words must go to the director Jan Palmer Sayer who presented us with such a riveting production, full of innovation and life, who must have worked her cast very hard to get such fine performances from them and a real RSC curtain call – it was worth it.