ROWAN WILLIAMS’s first play, Lazarus, had its première as part of the 24-hour cycle of plays, Sixty-Six Books, at the Bush Theatre, London. As one of 66 dramatic responses to the King James Bible, it held its own alongside the work of our finest playwrights. Its elegiac tone entirely matched my mood as, woozy with pleasure and tiredness, I approached my 16th hour in the theatre.
Published here in a collection of three plays, it reveals more complex ideas than could be appreciated during its short passage on stage. Three people whose lives have been touched by grief react to words from John 11. The time is simultaneously the first and 21st centuries; the place is both the tomb of Lazarus and a crematorium. Rain cascades. Questions remain unanswerable.
The other plays have not received full professional productions, with the extensive rehearsal-room development that creates a stage-worthy script. The Flat Roof of the World recounts a love affair between the poet David Jones, traumatised by his experience of First World War trenches, and Petra Gill, who was sexually abused by her father, the artist Eric Gill. They are “two people bleeding quietly and waiting for the ambulances”. Dreamlike and earnest in its discussion of art, Catholicism, and shattered idealism, the play has moments of beauty, which emerge from stretches that test both comprehension and concentration.
Shakeshafte takes its inspiration from eight years during which there is no information about the life of William Shakespeare. One conjecture is that he went north and dallied with Roman Catholicism under the name Will Shakeshafte. The play supposes a meeting between the libidinous young man and the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion, travelling in disguise. They speak of whether you can know that the cause in which you invest your life is a truth worth dying for.
The image of a spider pouring out worlds from inside itself is memorable, both for a writer and in anticipation of the terrible way in which Campion would die. This, too, is a play of ideas, densely spun. Its most theatrical moment is the seduction of a young woman who confuses a playwright’s desire to be inside her character for a more fundamental urge, interposed with Campion’s marking Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust.”
My instinct is that, with their monologue-heavy structure and complex metaphors, these plays work better on the page than on a stage. I would be delighted if an imaginative director proved me wrong.
Peter Graystone is a Lay Training Officer in the diocese of Southwark. His latest book is All’s Well That Ends Well: From dust to resurrection — 40 Days with Shakespeare (Canterbury Press, 2021) (Books, 21 January).
Shakeshafte and Other Plays
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