That frenetic pace is an inevitable part of Read Not Dead, where those involved donate their time for free to Globe Education’s on-going project that aims to breathe life into the 500 or so surviving professional plays from Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Using costumes provided by the actors and items scavenged from the Globe Theatre propstore, the real star was, quite rightly, the Hall itself.
Gray’s Inn Hall proved a glorious and beautiful setting for Gascoigne’s translation of Ariosto’s second play I suppositi, originally performed in 1509 at the Court of the Duke of Ferrara and his young wife, Lucrezia Borgia. The action takes place in a street in Ferrara over the course of one day. The two doors of the Hall’s screen became the entrances to the two houses of the play. The first house contained Polynesta (Beth Park), her father Damon (Master Roger Eastman), and her disguised-as-a-servant lover Erostrato (John Hopkins). The other was home to the latter’s actual servant Dulippo (Charlie Anson) who, disguised as his master, tricks a Sienese stranger (David Meyer) into playing “his” father Philogano in order to outbid a dowry offered by Polynesta’s rival wooer, an old lawyer called Cleander (Sir Michael Burton), in order to delay that proposed match. When the real Philogano (Master Charles Douthwaite) turns up at the house in search of his son accompanied by a Ferrarese Innkeeper (Master Colin Manning) the comedy of stolen, ‘supposed’ identities really begins.
“This was a splendid theatrical and historical occasion, of which I was thrilled to be part, even though playing an ageing lawyer who did not get the girl. It is good to know that 450 years on from Gascoigne, Gray’s Inn can still host a rousing Revel.”
If the plot sounds a little like The Taming of the Shrew without the Kate/Petruchio plot, that’s because this is clearly a major source for Shakespeare in writing it. Of course, this is not the only connection he had with the Inn. His patron Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was a Gray’s man, and Shakespeare himself performed here on 28 December 1594 in his own The Comedy of Errors, based, like Gascoigne’s comedy of Supposes, on a play by Plautus. A third play by the Roman playwright provided the plot for Twelfth Night, performed on 2 February 1602, at Middle Temple Hall.
This Read Not Dead on the road performance provided not only a chance for lawyers, actors and audiences to enjoy the shared experience of reviving this milestone of English theatre, but also to remember Shakespeare’s debt not only to the commedia erudite of the Italian renaissance, but also to what Ben Jonson in his dedication to his Every Man Out of His Humour called “The noblest nurseries of humanity and liberty, in the Kingdome: the INNS OF COURT.”