Equivocation by Bill Cain
at OSF; in its final week
Bill Cain’s Equivocation — about Will Shakespeare being pressured by the Jacobean government to write a propaganda piece glorifying the prevention of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, and how Will found a way instead to incorporate chunks of what he discovered into the play we know as Macbeth — is an extraordinary play, on the same level as another re-envisioning and bending of a Shakespearean tragedy, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Cain’s play is also gaining productions elsewhere, and with just six actors and a plain, neutral set, there are practical and artistic justifications for doing it extensively.
I learned more from Cain’s play about the Big Shake, life among the King’s Men, James I and Robert Cecil, Shake’s daughter Judith, the Elizabethan/Jacobean police state, and Abu Ghraib than I did in all the books I studied in grad school.
Yes, Abu Ghraib — because weapons of mass destruction, going into war based on a lie, “justifications” for torture, terrorism, and destroying democracy in order to save democracy are all over this play.
It’s like Stoppard in another way: You gotta do your homework. In Cain’s play, Sir Robert Cecil wows Shakespeare by saying that his plays will live on “for another 50 years.” And the issue of how long a play will run, of posterity, crops up a lot. Well, Ros & Guil is one of Sir Tom’s most popular; Equivocation will have a long highbrow shelf life -- not enduringly popular in the mainstream, but with real legs for those who are willing to research the politics of England from 1533 to 1606. (August:Osage County gives us, today, ourselves; Equivocation is about people in the history books.)
For such a cerebral play, it has calls to action and even moments that evoke compassion and sentiment: “Shag” cradling the head of a young married, tortured conspirator suddenly morphs into Shakespeare cradling the head of his son Hamnet, who’s been dead these 10 years. The play’s final image -- Shake’s daughter Judith, the disaffected one, the twin who lived, the less-favored daughter, at her father’s graveside, complaining that she never really liked the hokeyness of the final romances, with all their magic and coincidences and obsession of a father for reconnecting with his daughter -- and suddenly, through a lighting trick, director Bill Rauch places them on the Globe’s stage, and Judith becomes Cordelia, and Shag, her father, her dead Lear (or else Marina, Imogen, Perdita, Miranda, all reconciled with their fathers in the late romances).
There are big swaths of Lear and Macbeth in Cain’s play, the latter with James I, resplendent in golden robes, hopping up and down and clapping his hands with excitement, all because this new play by the King’s Men is set in Scotland and has witches! (Plenty of witches. Also plots, betrayal, murder, sadism, regicide, emptiness, curses, death.)
(Bobo’s lucky: This very night, on the same Bowmer stage, he is to see ... the Scottish play itself.)
Anthony Heald (best Iago I’ve ever seen onstage, here a few years back) plays Shag as a man who’s repressed, out to make a profit, wary of his superiors, respectful of actors, always in a rush, not at all astounded by his own talent, deeply concerned about what’s true — in politics, in the spiritual realm.
One of the many, many wonderful things about Equivocation is how it treats Shakespeare with irreverence — flawed, a man of the moment, not held at arm’s length by bardolatry, not sure at all that his plays will live on, living a precarious existence as a crypto-Catholic (?) in an officially Protestant nation.
Jonathan Haugen’s split-second changes from just one of the shareholders in the company, Nate (Nathan Field? -- Richard Burbage and Robert Armin, Shakespeare’s wiser fool of the later comedies, are also in this cast) -- into “Beagle,” the Richard III-like, diminutive and misshapen and morally crippled, always scheming Robert Cecil (real-life son of William, whom Shak. parodied as Polonius) were delightful.
So was this play. I’m buying the script, just to relive the fun.
And more than fun -- in its contemporary relevance, its array of insightful analogies, Equivocation presents a theatrical experience not unlike what it must have been like to sit in 1953 for The Crucible: witch hunts like McCarthy there, the scheming in and around the Gunpowder Plot with echoes of Mr. Cheney’s war here.
History made alive. Drunken porters who tell people to fuck off. The world’s greatest playwright, unable even to treat his own daughter with humanity. Actors forever under pressure to get the next play up.
Shag, for once, livng and breathing in our world. That’s Equivocation: having it both ways, living in worlds that are 400 years and a continent apart.
[photos: Anthony Heald as Shag and Jonathan Haugen as Sir Robert Cecil; the members of the King's Men vote to put on the "official version" of what really happened during the Gunpowder Plot (as penned by King James himself and script-doctored by Shakespeare ... erm, this never actually happened, you know]