Compositor E – Omnibus Theatre, London

Reviewer: Adam Stevenson

Writer: Charlie Dupré

Director: Marie McCarthy

Compositor E tells the story of John Leason, a 17-year-old who becomes an apprentice at Jaggard’s printshop while they are working through their biggest enterprise, Shakespeare’s first folio. Presented as part of the 400th anniversary of that book, it aims to celebrate the power of words and ask deep questions about the forgotten hands behind a published work.

It begins with Leason’s first day. The workshop is noisy, there are three mute printer’s devils churning out copy, the resident compositor is a diva and the boss is sick upstairs. Instead, his son, Isaac Jaggard shows Leason the ropes. He is gruff and stressed, fearing that he will not be able to finish the work and live up to his father’s legacy. When Richard Bardolph, the diva compositor falls sick, it’s up to Leason to step in but he is incapable of taking the text “in through the eyes and out through the fingers” – he needs to understand it.

The play that is being laid down is Macbeth and Leason has some issues with the portrayal of the three witches, particularly whether they should be represented as ‘weird’ or ‘wayward’ sisters. He has some trauma in his past regarding witch trials and he comes from Pendle Hill (though has picked up a modern London accent surprisingly quickly). Jaggard has his own issues with his father and his own self-esteem, while Bardolph longs to be a bard.

These underlying tensions lead to a number of shouting matches and drama of a particularly forced variety. The three speaking roles often feel like people who are in a play. As a result, Tré Medley’s Leason spends his time gyrating on the floor as he remembers his tragic backstory, asking naive questions about the business of printing or making attempts at profound comments about the nature of language. Kaffe Keating’s Jaggard also spends most of his time barking orders and insults, generally being busily driven and occasionally waxing poetical about the role of print. It’s not surprising that David Monteith’s Bardolph, the poet-aspirant also has his own musings on what being a compositor means – when he’s not spewing or pissing.

The most interesting characters of the piece are the three non-speaking roles, played through the run by a varied ensemble. They begin as the printer’s devils, the manual labourers who work the press itself. As the play continues, they become a witchy trio, mixing the ink like a potion and later creating the finished folio as if by magic. Compositor E spends a lot of time mulling over how the compositor has a ‘fingerprint’ on the work, while ignoring those whose inky fingers are moving it through the press.

The word ‘fingerprint’ itself is an odd one, being a distinctly modern idea and not entering the language until the 1830s. The script also talks about particles and the phrase ‘mental health’ very nearly pops up. The clothes themselves are modern, though Bardolph does get a frilly shirt. There’s clearly a desire to make the characters and play feel modern, which clashes with the witch-hunt backstory, talk of the Master of Revels and the big picture of James I on the wall.

The most interesting element of Compositor E is probably the language and processes of printing itself. The audience hears about quires, galleys and catch-words, how a book is a confusing puzzle of folded paper, how a compositor must cast off a text so the words fit on a page. The play communicates what a large and complex job the first folio was, the difficulty in finding quality paper and the amount of skilled and fiddly labour the whole work took.

At the end, Leason gives an impassioned, rhyming monologue about the importance of language and his vital role in bringing such work to the public. John Leason was a real person, a genuine apprentice of Jaggard’s and the person most often cited as Compositor E. He was responsible for compositing over 70% of Shakespeare’s tragedies in the first folio but is not regarded in Shakespeare studies as a bold interpreter of the original works. Of the five compositors who worked on the first folio, he is given the letter E because he is regarded as the least accurate. He’s remembered as a bungler whose many errors and mistakes are so egregious, that the Jaggard printing house has a bad reputation to this day. Not exactly the sublime hero of words Compositor E wishes to present.

Runs until 7 October 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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