To watch a play in the same space – the hall of Gray’s Inn – where it was first staged in 1566, and which has hardly ever been produced since, is awesome enough. But to discover that the play itself (George Gascoigne’s “Supposes”), which I saw yesterday, is as relevant now as it was in Elizabethan times makes this resurrection verge on the magical.
Gascoigne, like so many early modern playwrights was a rogue. He was in and out of prison, in and out of Parliament and in and out of Grays Inn where he practised as a lawyer (and which explains some splendid anti-lawyer references in the play). He wrote this play – or rather translated it from the original Italian version by Aristo in 1508 (itself based on Plautus’s Menaechmi) – on a subject that is of burning relevance to the internet of today. Identity.
It is not just switched characters and impostors in which this and so many plays of Shakespeare’s time wallowed in but the vital question of proving who you are. When towards the end of a complicated plot the father of Erostrato comes from Sicily to Ferrara to contact his errant student son he finds that his son’s servant Dulipo has been impersonating Erostrato for so long that the rest of the neighbourhood refuse to believe he is Erostrato’s father. With no passport, birth certificate let alone electricity bill all the father can offer is to plead that a few people from Sicily be allowed to come over to prove who he is (as if all that couldn’t be fabricated). This, according to some lawyers present yesterday, is the post-Norman origin of our jury service – getting ten men and true to vouch for who you are. This would have resonated with Elizabethan audiences when people from outside a village could be arrested if they couldn’t prove who they were and will strike a chord with those struggling with the problem of identity on the internet and elsewhere.
Yesterday’s performance revealed another gem of London – the Read Not Dead company, an offshoot of the Globe Theatre’s education section, which is hosting regular readings of all the extant manuscripts of surviving early modern plays. To my amazement yesterday’s company of (unpaid) jobbing actors and Grays Inn lawyers under the direction of James Wallace only received their scripts and roles at 10 am yet by 3pm had produced a highly professional performance that got a rousing reception from the audience. “Supposes”, the first play in English written in prose, has hitherto been mainly mentioned as a source for Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Comedy of Errors (also first staged in Gray’s Inn). It is time it moved centre stage.
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Inside Gray’s Inn during the interval (taken in bad light with mobile, faces blurred out)