This year is the 450 years since the birth of Christopher Marlowe and the Rose Bankside is the playhouse with which he is most closely associated. The theatre has already staged an acclaimed production of Dr Faustus and Christopher Wallace now brings The Massacre at Paris back to its original London home.
For a play (according to Wallace) that hasn’t been given a proper professional run in England in nearly 400 years the programme helps us along our way. There is a synopsis and a brief discussion of the text, as well as academically written articles on the dramatist and the political background to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 1572.
Sixteenth century France was a country in the midst of religious, political and social unrest. When the Protestant Henri de Navarre arrived in Paris to marry the Catholic Marguerite (daughter of Catherine de’ Medici) it caused resentment on behalf of the Catholics of the city, leading to them turning on the population of the Huguenot Protestants. Marlowe uses this background to contrive his own version, in which the Machiavellian Duke of Guise hatches plots to kill the city’s Huguenots, whilst the Medici Queen Mother schemes to put one son after another on the throne, although she is the one who holds the reins of power.
Originally performed within months of Shakespeare’s bloodthirsty revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus, Massacre feeds into the same blood lust that appeared to have enthralled and captivated Elizabethan playgoers in the 1590s. Modern day audiences (especially of film) seem to be inured to copious amounts of blood and gore, and this production turns instead to a stylisation that steers away from the horrors of murder, choosing instead to use confetti-like billows of red paper to symbolize bloodletting.
This production is heavy on imagery and suggestion. The play opens with a wedding cake and a crossed knife and sharpening rod, portentous of both the slaughter to follow, and the religion in whose name it is enacted. Although the first assassination is by poisoned gloves the action escalates, under cover of dim lighting, to include the murder of men, women and children. Each slaying is accompanied by another cloud of red paper until the stage area is covered with snippets of crimson, which merge with and subsume the white confetti that was thrown after the marriage at the beginning of the tragedy. A comedic touch is when the Guise ‘urinates’ yellow paper over a dead body, although he goes a tad too far when stamping on the head of the Huguenot Lord High Admiral’s dead body. Fear not readers, no people were harmed in this production and the body is merely a giant rag doll.
Throughout the history of mankind wars have been waged in the name of religion and ethnic cleansing. The Duke of Guise (John Gregor) appears as a combination of skinhead thug and Mosleyian Blackshirt, clad in a Gestapo black leather jacket and raising his arm in a Nazi salute. Catherine (Kristin Milward), his sometime mistress, semiotically dressed in black, also carries elements of Lady Macbeth, coaxing and threatening her lover.
The Queen Mother’s second son and later King Henry III (James Askill) matures from a childlike creature, through homosexual relationships with his minions, finally becoming an adult and monarch in his own right, before he too is slain.
The programme discusses the reliability of the text and supports the belief that it is a memorial construction, rather than the exact words written by Marlowe. Theatre audiences are not academics and may not be aware of the failings of the script, but it is very sycophantic in its references to Queen Elizabeth I, who was on the throne across the channel both at the time of the massacre and of the play’s original performances. England was undergoing its own paranoiac suspicions of plots to usurp the throne and replace its sovereign with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, but the playwright nails his colours to the post with the reference to the Queen of England whom God hath blessed for hating Papistry. God was on his throne in Heaven in the Early Modern Period and all was right with England whilst the Almighty was on her side, so of course the Catholics are all slaughtered and peace is regained with the ascension of the Protestant King of Navarre to the French throne.
The Rose is continuing in its attempts to raise £3m to match the funding awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. If you wish in the future to watch Elizabethan and Jacobean plays as they would have been seen by visitors to playhouses more than 400 years ago I suggest you buy yourself a ticket to see Marlowe’s least known play and help them on their way.