On hearing the words ‘revenge tragedy’ I may give an involuntary shudder as I recall my A-Level English Literature classes, poring over the text of The Duchess of Malfi with coloured pencils to mark the themes of incest, murder, love, etc. It wasn’t until our teacher took us to a small production in the back of a pub (memory fails me on where it was) that it all came to life. It transported me from trying to understand the text in a soulless Croydon classroom to the dramatic revenge playing out before my eyes.
Making Massinger is set in the 17th century, but is written by Simon Butteriss, a modern playwright. It is presented here as an audio play, a recording from a live performance at Salisbury Playhouse. Yet, hearing it rather than seeing it, you don’t feel as though you are missing out; the cast are so brilliant that it is easy to sit back and be swept up in the drama. Every single character is utterly believable, and despite the intricate plot, with secret plans and schemes afoot from the very beginning, it is easy to stay engaged throughout. Some may be put off by its 17th century setting, but, as with many of the plays from that time, once you get into the story and know the characters and their motives, it is gripping.
It would be difficult to single out a particular cast member as they are all incredible, from the illicit love affair portrayed between John Fletcher (played by Hubert Burton) and Philip Massinger (Samuel Barnett) to the enticing scheming of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (Edward Bennett) and Mary, Dowager Countess of Pembroke (Jane How). Julia Hills as Katherine Mompesson perfectly captures the desperation of someone trying to raise her status in a rigid society, whilst Nina Wadia plays the compassionate and conspiratorial tavern owner Mistress Froth with real heart.
The play itself is a triumph. It must be quite a challenge to write within the context of so many greats of the time, but Butteriss succeeds with style. He mixes modern prose with rhyming couplets, the language you’d expect from the canon of 17th century plays, with touches of self-aware humour when he does so. Firmly placing the play in the time, Shakespeare and Johnson feature in the text, and it is easy to imagine the candlelit wood-panelled rooms and period clothing that the characters inhabit. The production is also incredibly funny, and the final ten seconds had me gasping and giggling in equal measure.
I had a few reservations before listening to Making Massinger, all entirely self-inflicted after my previous revenge-tragedy experience, but this play is a testament to period drama being just as exciting and gripping as anything that could play out in the present day. Listening to the audio play was a wonderful form of escapism and had me second-guessing at how the plot would develop throughout.
Written by: Simon Butteriss
Directed by: Simon Butteriss and Gareth Machin
Produced by: Wiltshire Creative
Making Massinger is available for free via Soundcloud until 27 August. Further information along with the show can be found via the below link.