Festivities, Spectacular Tricks and Love at the Red Bull Playhouse, Clerkenwell


A Rival to Shakespeare's Globe

Dr. Eva Griffith, author of A Jacobean Company and its Playhouse, talks to us about - among other things - spectacle and the early Red Bull theatre's entertainments.

A year after publishing your book about the Queen’s Servants’ company at the Red Bull Playhouse how do you feel about the response to it?

‘Very pleased’ is the answer to your question. Most of the hard-back books are sold now – I guess there are about… ooh… sixty left in the world. One Twittery tweeting reviewer has called it a ‘game-changer’ when it comes to understanding the full picture for Shakespearean theatre. So your readers better hurry if they want to understand this for themselves and own the only book extant about this rival to Shakespeare’s enterprises.

Are there many reviews yet?

Academic reviews are very slow in coming and I am not one to seek them out. But those I have seen understand what it is I tried to achieve. Flatteringly it has been called ‘eagerly awaited’, ‘much anticipated’ – and (thank goodness) that it ‘amply fulfils expectations’. Terms that also make me happy include ‘rich and nuanced’, ‘well-researched’, ‘dense with intriguing detail’, ‘refreshingly enlightening’ and all sorts. An archaeologist hopes I’ll be able to write more about the later Red Bull period, as it survived the Civil War and Interregnum. Maybe I will one day. But it seemed essential to detail the important first ‘Shakespearean’ period so that future thinkers could build on the new things presented.

Reviewers have noted the book content about Queen Anna of Denmark and her court, haven’t they?

Yes. The book does have something to offer in the way of showing how the women of Anna’s circle must have been a central consideration for acting companies and how this company, with the consort Queen as patron, had to think about this in particular. Queen Anna instigated many sophisticated masques – colourful, private royal entertainments for Christmas and family grand parties – where both she and her circle of women were involved as performers. This betrays conscious tastes. The family she came from in Denmark were provably interested in the spectacle evident in these masques – machinery, large mythic-based costumes – striking dress and make-up effects – with fireworks if outdoor entertaining was involved. If you look at the Queen’s Servants’ repertoire you can see how it develops into one that could have privileged spectacle over words – where Shakespeare’s company did not. Albeit that the King’s Men introduced elements of this, such as in The Tempest and Cymbeline.

This idea of courtly approval seems to collide with the kind of ‘citizen fare’ perception of the repertoire of the Queen’s Servants. What would you say about that?

I was absolutely thrilled to see The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse put on Francis Beaumont’s play this year, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (published 1614). They are re-producing it again for Christmas and the New Year (2014-15) because of its rip-roaring success. The main characters are a seventeenth-century London couple, Grocer George and his wife, Nell, who are huge Red Bull fans but come to see a play called ‘The London Merchant’ at a different ‘select’ theatre. Horrified that the play is about to make fun of the City they love, they get up on stage and change the action to the kind they like, i.e. Red Bull plays of the Queen’s Servants’ period. They mention the Thomas Heywood play The Four Prentices of London, refer to If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody Part II (all about Sir Thomas Gresham, a citizen hero) and The Rape of Lucrece – and the Red Bull is alluded to specifically. Small wonder then that people have believed that this theatre was one for a brash ‘nouveau riche’ ‘middle class’ (for want of better words).

Why is this unfair then?

Well, for a start this underestimates George, Nell AND their apprentice Rafe who also comes to the performance. Rafe is different from the people he works for. Whether this is because he is young or for other reasons, we can see he is intelligent and appealing as someone who enjoys drama on his own terms. He knows his Kyd and his Shakespeare, quoting from Henry IV and parodying Henry VI, Richard III, The Spanish Tragedy and other mainly Elizabethan entertainments in a Jacobean context. Because the citizens were successful business people, gentry families would put sons forward for apprenticeships in order to inject cash into the coffers of their estates. Beaumont got into trouble with The Knight of the Burning Pestle because he upset people in the audience, but he knew better than to make the citizen group altogether stupid – Rafe may well have been educated and could have spoken well. The play intelligently demonstrates the group’s spectacle preferences including dancing, song and the monster character, Barbarossa, (performed by a Barber).  High-end European masque and procession watchers and performers were not the only people who enjoyed colour and splendour over words alone. The same people who took part in Lord Mayor displays through the City also enjoyed this kind of thing in the playhouse – and the company at the Red Bull was happy to provide for these and court patrons alike.

You seem very endeared to your subject matter. Is there anything else you’d like your readers to understand about this playhouse and its drama?

I would like to quote from a Queen’s Servants’ play which wasn’t particularly spectacular but is lovely to read and very self-referential – Greene’s Tu Quoque or The Cittie Gallant. It starred the clown of the company and its leader, Thomas Greene, who is pictured on the front of the book. Clerkenwell, at that time, was a parish to the north of the City – in the county of Middlesex. The home of Love at this time of year – according to one character in the play:

‘Well this Love is a troublesome thing Jupiter bless me out of his fingers’ he says. ‘There’s no estate can rest for him. He runs through all countries, will run through the Isle of Man in a minute, but never is quiet till he comes into Middlesex, and there he keeps his Christmas. Tis his habitation. His mansion. From whence he’ll never out till he be fired.’

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