Writer: Simon Butteriss
Directors: Simon Butteriss and Gareth Machin
This audio drama about 17th century dramatists is deliciously both high brow and vulgar. With jokes about poetic metre sat alongside bawdy metaphors for sex Making Massinger would make for filthy fun if it weren’t for the romance and heartache that underpins this tragic comedy.
Philip Massinger, a real-life dramatist born in 1583, is looking for a patron to keep him out of debtors’ prison when along comes an old acquaintance who claims that he is the mysterious Mr W.H., to whom Shakespeare addressed many of his sonnets and which has led to many scholars believing that the most famous playwright in the world harboured queer desire. At first it appears that William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, would be the perfect patron because of all his connections to court, but he makes it clear that he would expect more than plays for his money. As he moves in to seal the deal, Massinger remembers another sexual assault made on him when he was a boy.
All this happens in the first ten minutes, and at first it is a struggle to keep up with names and locations. But the story moves quickly and the writing is a delight. Although there is no script available, it sounds like most of it is written in verse, not just the iambic pentameter and the rhyming couplet so loved by Shakespeare but other experimental meters that Massinger toyed with during his career. With rhymes and half rhymes, and the occasional feminine ending, Making Massinger thrillingly feels like a play that the playwright himself could have written if sodomy hadn’t been a capital offence.
There are also dashes of Jane Austen in it, too, with the arrival of Katherine Mompesson, who is trying to make her way up the greasy pole of society. She comes to blackmail Pembroke. If her husband receives a title, she will keep her mouth shut about his sexual exploits, and it’s an offer that he can ill afford to refuse. Meanwhile, Massinger is now shacked up with John Fletcher, a writer that history was more keen to remember, and now they write plays together.
The story by Simon Butteriss imagines a tender romance between the two playwrights, with Fletcher adding the comedy to Massinger’s serious plays. But soon Massinger is forced to accept Pembroke’s patronage after all, and it becomes clear that the Mompessons are the common enemy. For a play that only has six speaking characters the plot is complicated and it demands one’s full attention, which can be quite hard when one is also admiring the metrical rhythm.
It would be easier, too, if the cast had regional accents (like The Archers, for instance) as here they all sound a little alike and scenes work best when they contain only two characters. Still, Samuel Barnett is able to bring a sense of youthful outrage to Massinger and Edward Bennett is suitably unctuous as Pembroke, and yet one still roots for him in his battle against Katherine Mompesson, the parvenu. She is pleasingly haughty in the hands of Julia Hills.
The audio drama was recorded on the main stage at Salisbury Playhouse and while the voices are always clear, it would be useful to have a sound effect or two; a raging fire perhaps, or the sound of horse-drawn carriages. These additions would give the play a sense of place that would complement the wordplay.
Will Butteriss’s play encourage a revival of Massinger’s plays? If they are as good as this, then maybe.
Runs here until 27 August 2021