Modern Performances

While the Honest Whore plays clearly went down very well with the audiences for which Dekker wrote them, it is not possible to say that they are markedly popular in the theatre today. For one thing there have been too few productions for us to be able to judge just what success might be achieved. We desperately need strong modern performances of both plays, in their entirety, without amalgamations, drastic cuts, re-writings, etc. The emphasis should, moreover, lie on the quality of natural and excellent acting and staging, not on odd costumes and extraneous effects.

Amongst the few productions that are generally known, one of 1 The Honest Whore by 606 Theatre, from 13 November to 5 December 1992, in the Boulevard (London), attracted reasonably favourable reviews reproduced in Theatre Record for 4-17 November 1992 (page 1350), and at least the play itself created interest. No doubt one reason for this is that the audience were not given the odd, much reduced and altered conflation of the two plays which Mark Rylance and Jack Shepherd put together for a production which the Globe Theatre staged from 13 August to 18 September 1998. As someone familiar with 1 and 2 The Honest Whore I found it excruciating to read this version, and it did not seem to me at all suitable as a script for performance, or a text that does justice to Dekker’s two plays, even if one views with sympathy the idea of some cutting. Paul Mulholland claims that the Globe production attracted generally ‘favourable’ reviews.[5] I do not know which reviews he has in mind, but Theatre Record for 13-26 August 1998 includes a large number (1073-76), and although one reviewer comments that ‘The Honest Whore is a real find’ (1074), this comment is unrepresentative. Many of the others are thoroughly depressing to anyone who loves 1 and 2 The Honest Whore, though here and there some genuinely positive things are said. Not only did the script create problems, but so did the production, with its use of peculiar clothes, strange staging, and apparently often uninspiring acting.

I do not think that my impression of the reviews is unbalanced. A reviewer of the Globe’s 1998 season, Lois Potter, who saw the Globe’s Honest Whore ‘in previews and after their press nights’, concluded that ‘Globe productions are relatively under-rehearsed’, that ‘some audience and reviewer complaints are justified’, and – in the case of the conflated Honest Whore – that ‘The production was not popular with audiences’, to which she constructively added that ‘Shepherd and Rylance deserve credit for attempting to take a Jacobean play seriously’.[6] Unfortunately that is not the same as treating it well.

10As I could not see the production for myself, I asked a good friend, Mark Angus, who is a qualified professional actor as well as an English scholar, to view it for me. He reported extensively, so as to give me a very good impression of what was presented on stage, and offered the following final summary, which is much in tune with what was expressed by many reviewers:

Overall, I cannot judge this production a success, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the conflation of the two parts into one does not work – it could be argued that the styles are different to such an extent that the parts are very uneven. Also, the rhythm of the play is disturbed: when the first half is over we know that a whole play has in fact finished and it ‘feels’ as though the performance should end there. As well, the changes in Hippolyto’s character were not sufficiently explored to make his change from puritan preacher to whoremonger plausible. The setting and costuming also did not contribute to clarity – such a hotch-potch of costumes does no-one any favours, and I felt they either should have forgotten the Milanese setting altogether, and changed the names and locations and made it what it is (a London play), or else they should have tried for a period feel, as the situation ultimately was very unclear. I found little in the acting to enjoy, although Mattheo acquitted himself reasonably well, as did the Duke in some sections; but generally the performances seemed a little perfunctory.

Hardly any review I have read has given me the feeling that I would have enjoyed and admired this production. My general impression is that it was misguided.

It is worth mentioning a RADA production (in the GBS) for their autumn production season of 1997, running from 26 November to 5 December, preceding the Globe’s by many months. Unfortunately I have not been able to obtain information on how well this production was received by those who saw it. The programme notes make plain that much cutting occurred (‘each play is as long as the single play you are watching’), and that ‘the subplot’ was removed entirely.

Mulholland records a ‘substantially adapted revival’ by a graduating class of Canada’s National Theatre School (7-11 December 2004), which, ‘among other changes, switched the gender of the central blocking character from Duke to Duchess’.[7] Why this was considered necessary or desirable is not explained.

One continues to look forward to the appearance of a major production of the two plays which will faithfully present the texts as written and help to give them the fine reputation which they so richly deserve.