In far too many reviews of Love’s Sacrifice, to my mind, the crux of the critics’ argument is that much-vaunted trope, that John Ford’s play is “second-rate Shakespeare” – but that, I think, is to miss the point completely (unlike a trio of the cast: who end up rather vigorously blood-stained…). Maybe people do purchase Škodas, regretting the fact that they have bought a ‘second-rate Volkswagen’ (although, when they drive it, they will not be disappointed; nor with its longevity); or flick through paperback books, wondering if the words would have jumped more livelier from the page if they had not succumbed to the cost-effectiveness of a ‘second-rate hardback’ (or even Kindle)? To compare Ford to Shakespeare (or Shelby (sorry)), though, is meaningless – and trite – a simple – nay simplistic – hook from which to hang your well-creased critical cloth.
Okay, I admit, it is difficult to attend a play at the Swan without bringing Big Bill to mind: but surely, “the play’s the thing”, and should be judged on its own merits? As Martin White – who directed a crucial student production of this “lost masterpiece” in 1997 at the University of Bristol – comments in the programme notes:
The RSC’s Swan Theatre was opened in 1986 with the aim of reviving plays from 1570 to 1750, and many of the productions staged there have offered audiences the chance to see some forgotten plays and so expand the repertoire of early modern plays…. In 1604 the playwright John Marston wrote ‘The life of these things consists in action’.
And, in his astute, erudite, thorough and entertaining introduction, editor AT Moore concludes that…
Long dismissed as a poor mish-mash of Jacobean tragic conventions, Love’s Sacrifice is a challenging, ingenious drama which touches on – but does not wholly articulate – perceptions of women as the bearers of authentic and defensible thoughts and feelings. The uncertainty raised by these perceptions haunts the play, contributing much to its uneasy mixture of baroque lyricism, mannerist doubt and even absurdity…. Ford has dared to put on stage what he imagined, however awkward or provocative that may prove to be…. Love’s Sacrifice manages to be both ethereal and worldly about romantic passion, and to express, in the contradictory fabric of its language, action and dramatic form, a capacious vision of love.
…and I agree. I know that many critiques, nowadays, rely majorly on comparison and derivation: but that’s not really my way. Just to say: yes, there are echoes, for example, of Othello – but should we say that about every play that features a jealous husband? – as well as Hamlet – but do we roll that out every time our melancholy hero spirals into madness and dies? – but Ford is a much, much better writer and dramatist than that (as Moore intimates); and the scattered plot references are no mere mimicry: they are developed, used sparingly, commented upon, sometimes twisted, and used as devices in themselves – all facets that its original seventeenth-century audience would have appreciated, understood, acknowledged… and then patted themselves on the back for recognizing and being so fantastically intelligent! Martin White explains that Ford “expects his audience to ‘read’ his plays with that awareness”. But this doesn’t mean that modern patrons won’t ‘get the joke’ – even though current repertory is so different – or, to be honest, that it matters if they don’t. They will see the play through modern eyes; through a modern performance that shows them, gives them, what they need. And this one does it in spades….
For a thoroughly period production, it is a brave step – but one that works incredibly well – to feature such contemporary, almost Bartókian, chamber-music – by Alexander Balanescu – a string quartet of stunning passion, with supplemental, atmospheric percussion (and uncredited voices). This was in no way ‘incidental’, but key to driving the action on – and, if I did have any sort of comparison in mind, it would be some of the better episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
The set design by Anna Fleischle – with ingenious echoing, diminishing arches and mood-ramping back-projection – partnered with Lee Curran’s perceptive lighting – including a rather inventive chess motif (which, sadly, may not have been entirely visible to those not in the gallery) – showed that the creative team (including director Matthew Dunster, making his RSC debut) had taken the play at its merits, and enthusiastically given their all.
The company (many of whom can still be seen in the rip-roaring The Jew of Malta – reviews here and here), too, demonstrated their intensity, their belief, their immersion, at every opportunity. In fact, it would be hard to criticize any of them: but special mention must go to Matthew Needham’s ardent Duke of Pavy – “I am Caraffa, he, that wretched man” – Jonathan McGuinness as slimy, conniving “arch-arch-devil” D’Avolos; Andy Apollo as “overworked gigolo” Ferentes – “Chastity? I am an eunuch if I think there be any such thing” – and, of course, Matthew Kelly as “old antic” Mauruccio, whose redemption of sorts – “Adieu to all, for lords and ladies see My woeful plight, and squires of low degree” – feels deserved, despite his “musty theatricality”.
I would normally, therefore, recommend that you grasp the chance to see this production with both hands: but, “Pity o’ my wisdom”, tonight is its last performance. Stupidly, I had taken its earlier criticism at face-value; and only a spur-of-the-moment decision prompted us to go. Having read the text, though (especially in Moore’s wonderful edition), I had been utterly drawn in; my expectancy utterly rewarded – and should have known better, and to trust my own judgment. You won’t find me making that mistake again!
No age hath heard, nor chronicle can say,
That ever here befell a sadder day.