The English Question; Night & Day

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), November 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

The English Question; Night & Day


Byline: GEORGINA BROWN

Mutabilitie National Theatre, London Director: Trevor Nunn Starring: Anton Lesser, Patrick Malahide

Running time: 3 hrs**

Scissor Happy Duchess Theatre, London Director: Neil Mullarkey Starring: Lee Simpson, Nicola Stapleton Running time: 2 hrs***

There are occasions when a play is so long in the making that the plot is lost in the mists of time, or, in the case of Mutabilitie, lost in the mists and swallowed by the bogs of Ireland. Frank McGuinness, the great Irish playwright, has sweated over this play for more than a decade, fretting and fiddling because its subjects - what it means to be Irish, the roots of the war between England and Ireland, the work of Spenser and Shakespeare (McGuinness lectures on Eng Lit) - lie so close to his heart.

Every new work by McGuinness determinedly carves out its own unique dramatic territory and Mutabilitie is a rich, strange, ultimately misconceived concoction. It's an ambitious mingling of fantasy, history, literature, music, characters and culture from both countries across several centuries.

It is set in Ireland in the 16th Century, in and around Kilcolman Castle where the English Elizabethan poet and civil servant Edmund Spenser wrote the `Mutabilitie Cantos' from which the play takes its title. Spenser, a gentle, idealistic poet devoted to the great Queen Elizabeth, is nevertheless tormented by the poverty of the Irish people whose lands have been stolen by the English.

The other jewel in the English crown, Shakespeare no less, a freewheeling fortune-hunter visiting Ireland because he's heard that it has no theatre and so is ripe for a dramatic cultural attack, turns up, drunk and almost dead.

Spenser rescues him from the marauding Gaelic chieftains (raggedly regal, semi-mythical creatures who might have wandered off the set of Cymbeline or King Lear). With the help of his servant, File, a scowling pre-Raphaelite sprite who is also the local Gaelic poetess, Shakespeare is nursed back to eloquent health.

In this imagined meeting between Spenser (Patrick Malahide), Shakespeare (Anton Lesser) and File (Aisling O' Sullivan), the cultures and beliefs which sustain the war are once again aired. But artists, it seems, are as important as politicians. McGuinness's point, presumably, is that 400 years later, the prejudice and injustice continues, and change seems even more remote. …

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