Hyde Park, dir. Mike Cordner for the University of York Department of Theatre, Film and Television (https://www.york.ac.uk/tftv/). Scenic Stage Theatre, University of York, 9 June 2016.
Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson
Hyde Park is a masterpiece of Caroline theatre. Written in 1632, the play represents a precocious early effort by James Shirley, a writer who seems just to have hit his stride at the close of the theatres in 1642. Hyde Park is one of the best examples in early modern drama of a successful triple plot; it is also notable for its evocation of the culture associated with the title location in the early 1630s. The young cast and talented creative team from the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television handled the triple plot magnificently, and though the treatment of the setting was a bit less satisfying, the production was an overall success.
In the plot that sets up the structure of the play, Harriet Patten-Chatfield as Mrs Bonavent handles a difficult role well. It is not quite clear from the text just how Mrs Bonavent is to make her decision about whether to remarry when her husband does not return from a seven-year sea voyage. But Patten-Chatfield handled both her suitor Lacy (Robbie Nestor) and her returning (but unrecognized—perhaps a scarf or a hat would have been in order) husband Bonavent (Ben Kawalec) with a measure of playful insouciance that kept the audience’s interest. The interaction between these two men, however, could have been a bit heightened. In one famous scene, Lacy compels Bonavent to dance. The guests remark how awkward the dancing is, but Kawalec and choreographer Judy Emerick could have made it much more awkward and comedic.
The most entertaining plot involves Carol, luminously performed by Hannah Eggleton, who contemplates giving up her scornful wit to settle down with Fairfield (Chris Casbon). The part of Carol requires an actor capable of wittily commenting around the edges of the action, and Eggleton met the challenge, her demeanor and expressions giving life to Shirley’s words brilliantly. The third plot, introduced rather late in Act 2, is nonetheless very important to the play’s structural balance. The aptly named Trier (Joshua Welch) seeks to “try” the virtue of his fiancée Julietta (Saffia Sage) by encouraging her to spend time with the irresistibly smooth Lord Bonville (a very well-cast Max Manning). This trial theme—excessively common in Shirley—is rather difficult for modern audiences to connect to, but Sage shrewdly pulls off a believable character under difficult constraints. It should be mentioned that the male actors in this production were also excellent—the entire show was brilliantly cast—but this play is about the various choices women face in love and life, and the three female leads really shone.
Director Mike Cordner— along with a large artistic team including Associate Director Ollie Jones and Assistant Directors James Ralph, Nicholas Newman, and Sam Finlay— seems to have gone for a rather understated, naturalistic feeling throughout. This choice works well to help the audience understand the motivations of the characters and care about them, but hinders the awkward dancing scene and a later scene involving willow crowns since such scenes can hardly be performed as written in a naturalistic way. And speaking of naturalism, it seems that a play named after one of the most famous green places in the world might have benefited from a few green props. The transparent flats that designer Robert del Pino placed upstage sported a geometric design that called to mind the intersecting paths of the title park—or, perhaps, interlaced vegetation—but a few actual tree branches or potted plants probably wouldn’t have hurt. (By the way, many of the beautiful publicity photos used to advertise the play and to illustrate the programme were taken outside, resulting in a bit of an incongruous feel.) In addition, the nightingales that inhabited Hyde Park in large numbers in the 1630s make a rather meaningful cameo in the play, but the recorded birdsong used by sound designer Scott Hurley sounded rather jarringly out of place in the visually and aurally bare space. Some ambient nature sounds might have helped evoke the outdoors in certain key scenes.
Quibbles aside, it was an absolute joy to see this great play, performed only a handful of times in the last century, given a full and solid production. Every one of the actors spoke well, and the performance was fun and energetic throughout. Cordner has directed some rarely-played gems in recent years—including Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters and John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan—and it is time for British theatre to sit up and take notice. My companions at the beautiful Scenic Stage Theatre for this performance included scholars from Leeds and Stratford-upon-Avon. For a production of this quality (possibly in combination with the Mystery plays, which were showing at York Minster), it is worth the trip from anywhere in Britain.