Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London
John Ford (1586-c1640) doesn’t make it easy. A play, set in Sparta (in Elizabethan costume) about jealousy, love and revenge, his language and construction not to mention names of characters – Orgilus, Amyclas, Nearchus, Prophilus, Ithocles etc – stretch comprehension not to say pronunciation to an actor’s and audience’s limit. Is there fun to be had on such occasion? Judging by the reception by the young audience, there certainly is. A 17th century Renaissance tragedy made modern and immediate, they seemed to love every minute. But then, that’s the joy of the Shakespeare’s Globe; young audiences seem to take whatever is being staged – whether in the larger outdoor theatre or now in the indoor space, The Wanamaker – named after the Globe’s founding visionary, Sam Wanamaker. Lit by candles, its musky shadows create just the right kind of gloom-laden atmosphere beloved of the Jacobean/English Renaissance mind-set with its preoccupation with ghouls and mortality. The Broken Heart provides plenty of that if also a comic commentary on the volatility and unreliability of human emotion. A young woman – Penthea – is manhandled into a dungeon by a jealous husband under the auspices of her brother, Ithocles. She has been betrothed to another, Orgilus who `heart-broken’ escapes to Athens, disguises himself as a scholar only to return and be reconciled to the King and Court and act as a terminal ex machina to Ithocles. A simple framework you may think but there are a few other sideshows unravelling – the King’s daughter, Calantha, falls in love with returning soldier-hero, Ithocles whilst Orgilus’s sister Euphrania, falling in love with a Court gentleman must seek both Orgilus and her father’s permission before she can be allowed to marry (shades of Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Laertes!) When you’ve managed to get your head round the language, there is still the small matter of what Ford is actually trying to tell us. The Wanamaker programme speaks of stoicism, of Ford and his contemporaries’ fascination with the classical Stoics and of The Broken Heart being a riposte to the idea of repression and self denial. Certainly two of Ford’s women, Penthea and Calantha come to self-inflicted tragic ends as does Orgilus himself. In Caroline Steinbeis’ production, the emphasis though is rather on the characters’ comic foolhardiness than a cautionary tale about self denial. Brian Ferguson’s Caledonian Orgilus too seems more of a frantic than a self-denying man. Generally we are asked to be amused at the sudden switches and turnabouts rather than appalled. Amongst the highlights, there is a marvellously revelatory moment, a dance by the three women at the beginning of act two (choreographer Imogen Knight) whose stomping fury says more about women and their impotent social status than almost everything that has gone before.
And Calantha’s sudden assumption of the crown at the death of her father, her magnificent golden regalia with its wings and breastplate with references to the Virgin queen and masculine spirit inevitably put one in mind of the iconic Elizabethan queen who broke free from convention only to be equally trapped by it. So there are many elements to conjure with in this Broken Heart. You have to hand it to the company. It must be a fiendish piece to deliver. If its message isn’t always immediately obvious, the company’s commitment and passion certainly give it curiosity value. First published in Londongrip, March 2015