As much as Shakespeare’s canon has lent itself to endless interpretations, the Bard’s own life has been a source of fascination too. In Foul Pages, which is written by Robin Hooper and directed by Matthew Parker, Shakespeare (Ian Hallard) is called upon by Mary, Countess of Pembroke (Clare Bloomer) to write a play for her. She has James I (Tom Vanson) arriving as a guest of honour at her residence and needs to arrange entertainment ‘fit for a king’. However, there is a more pressing ‘need’ for Shakespeare’s play – a way to subliminaly influence the monarch and grant clemency for the imprisoned Walter Raleigh.
The play begins with the actors in Shakespeare’s troupe talking amongst themselves. Alex (Lewis Chandler) is one of star actors and expects to have a plum role in the new play too. However, Rob (Thomas Bird) another actor, has found favour with King James and the king wants him to play the main ‘female’ role…
Initially the play has a surfeit of innuendo, as the actors revel in saucy banter. However, once things settle down, Foul Pages reveals itself to be about the love of acting and what it was like for the ‘boys’ who played all the female roles. In this respect, it touches on the same subject matter as Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty (before the notion of casting real women was universally acceptable). Rob sees acting as a way for social advancement, while for Alex it is a true vocation, holding Rob’s ulterior motive with disdain.
Tension also lies elsewhere, between Mary and Shakespeare, as the Countess of Pembroke keeps on insisting on having a say in the way that the play is written. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s brother Ed (Greg Baxter) is sought by Mary’s maid Peg (Olivia Onyehara), but he can’t bring himself to reciprocate her feelings. Even though he’s convinced himself he only likes ‘real’ women, Peg instinctively senses that he harbours feelings for Rob – both earning her emnity.
Linking all these threads is ‘Chop’ (James King), a ‘dog’ who observes all and offers his thoughts on the proceedings to the audience. It sounds strange, but within the confines of the play, it does ‘work’. As Henslowe says in Shakespeare In Love: “Love and a bit with a dog, that’s what they want.”
Certainly as the play progresses, the deeper themes reveal themselves and characters such as King James’ bodyguard, Mears (Jack Harding) come into their own, behaving in unforeseen ways.
© Michael Davis 2018
Foul Pages runs at the Hope Theatre until 17th March.