Robert Smith gives Shagspere both firmness and humility
  • Robert Smith gives Shagspere both firmness and humility
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In Act Five, scene one, Hamlet tells the Gravedigger, “We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.”

“By the card” could refer to Matthew 5:37: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” In other words, be accurate, be true. Never lie or deceive.


But, Bill Cain’s Equivocation asks, aren’t there times when the truth could cause injustice, even death?

It’s 1606. William Shagspere’s newest play’s about an old man stripped of everything but his tattered soul. Rehearsals prove this Lear-thing “unplayable.”

Enter vile, Richard III-like Robert Cecil, most powerful statesman in England. He’ll pay top dollar for an official version of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

For years, 13 Roman Catholics plotted to blow up Parliament when anti-Catholic King James I was present. Led by Robert Catesby, they dug a tunnel to a vault directly under the House of Lords. On November 5, opening day of Parliament, Guy Fawkes was to ignite 36 barrels of gunpowder — with a “slow match” — then somehow escape and flee to Europe.

Someone alerted the King. Soldiers found Fawkes guarding huge piles of firewood and coal, under which was enough gunpowder to demolish a city block. Fawkes and most of the other conspirators were tortured and put to death. “Guy Fawkes Day” commemorates the event — to some, for his capture; to others, because he was “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”

Many say Robert Cecil was one of the conspirators. But he wants the official version to leave him out. But Shagspere wants to know what actually happened. When he finds out he wonders: how does one “tell the truth in dangerous times”?

Having William Shakespeare sleuth the Gunpowder Plot would make for some fascinating theater. Even weave equivocation through it as a leitmotif: tell the truth and die? But the playwright adds a baroque excess of threads and strands: asides about life in the theater; about Shakespeare’s youngest daughter, Judith (who married a philanderer whom the Bard wrote out of his will); and rehearsals of plays, and plays within plays, and flashes forward and back. In effect, this play about the Gunpowder Plot has too many plots.

It’s a long sit, but thanks to a crisp and lively production at Lamb’s, offers many highlights as well. Except for a tendency to shout, as if every line were a headline, the cast performs quite well, many in multiple roles, on set designer Sean Fanning’s appealing re-creation of the original Globe stage.

Robert Smith gives Shagspere both firmness and humility, along with — what must have been — world-class curiosity. Shag also has a first: since the Globe never does “current events,” he's never interviewed a living subject until now. He’s one relentless reporter.

Hunched over (he had curvature of the spine), believably insidious, Fran Gercke’s a freaky hoot as Robert Cecil, the man behind the throne — and most likely the Gunpowder Plot. Paul Eggington deftly doubles as Richard (Burbage, the leading actor at the Globe) and as Father Henry Garnet: the former, stately/actorish; the latter the opposite, tight-lipped, immobile.

Brian Mackey and Ross Hellwig do commendable work in multiple roles, and Caitie Grady does what she can with the underwritten Judith, Shakespeare’s other daughter, and one of the most enigmatic people in his biography (the playwright has Shakespeare snub her; others say she didn’t marry until age 32 because he doted on her too much).

Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth also contributed sounds and incidental music. Diana Elledge performs the latter on a resonant, deep sea cello that never once equivocates.

Playing through November 29

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