In 1605, a small group of English Catholics planned to blow up the House of Lords. Their goal was to kill King James I and most of the prominent members of England'ês political aristocracy, and to install James'ê young daughter as a Catholic monarch. Discovered at the 11th hour, they were tortured and gruesomely executed. A national outcry against the plot and its supposed Jesuit backers — capitalized upon by the King and his ministers and capped with the launch of 'êGuy Fawkes Day'ê — found its way to London stages: In the season following the plot, Shakespeare'ês Macbeth and plays by Dekker, Marston, and others all featured attempted regicide, diabolic forces, and deception.
King James, installed on the throne two years before, had disappointed Catholics with his pro-Protestant stance; however, he showed himself a discriminating patron of the arts in sponsoring the theater company of which the middle-aged Shakespeare was an active shareholder. The new play Equivocation, which premiered at Ashland in April and shows at Seattle Repertory Theater through Dec. 13, dramatizes that era'ês messy convergence of theater, religion, and politics. Lord Salisbury, the king's 'êbeagle'ê and a kind of crown-less Richard III, here wishes to enlist Shakespeare'ês participation in the post-plot propaganda effort. The pay is good and the purse is backed with threats, but Shakespeare balks at writing 'êThe Gunpowder Plot'ê to order. (This imagined play is a clever sally: A real 1830 drama called The Gunpowder Plot, a debunked apocryphal Shakespeare text no less, appears to have been written in reaction to the Catholic Emancipation.)
Equivocation spices its historic chops with close-ups of the famous playwright'ês collaborators and parenting style, creating a kind of Shakespeare in Love without the love. It'ês a piece in the tradition of Lion in Winter and Amadeus, a fictional biography that gives art heroes and monarchs witty asides and modern conversational usage, putting the 21st-century audience at ease and suggesting our essential kinship with the groundlings of the late Renaissance. Shakespeare'ês daughter Judith, laundress to the company and twin sister to Shakespeare'ês only, deceased, and much-mourned son, adds a feminist and slightly anarchic voice: post-Elizabethan Gen X.
The modern tone and themes are a dangerous and only intermittently successful gambit: It seems inapt that the Bard of Avon, that honey of the English tongue, would talk so simple. But author Bill Cain is a feisty chap who wants his message to ring clear: A Jesuit, a writer/producer of television'ês Nothing Sacred, and a founder of the Boston Shakespeare Festival, Father Cain still has a bone to pick all these centuries later with the Catholic-hating Gunpowder-Plot-busters.
In this he serves his order. For more than a century, Jesuit writers have attempted to pale o'êer the plotters'ê reputations. A favored tactic is to accuse Lord Salisbury of knowing about the plot in advance and profiting from it afterward; they use his supposed villainy to cast the insurgents in a better light. Indeed Father Cain goes one better and lambastes Salisbury'ês descendants, too.
In America the topic would have been more timely a half-century ago, pre-Kennedy, when anti-Catholic discrimination was still evident on the links. But the author holds our interest with his crazy quilt that interweaves Macbeth, bits of Lear, an anachronistic courtroom drama, a sympathetic 'êtrue'ê view of the gunpowder plotters, and a propagandist'ês demonization of them. If he'ês not quite a convincing instructor on 'êhow to tell the truth in dangerous times'ê — indirectly, it turns out — he at least amuses us with his vigorous remolding of history. If the soft dialogue leaves us unconvinced that we have seen the great Burbage and mighty Shakespeare reincarnate, it gives us at least a breezy evening of theater with no blank verse to wrack our brains.
If you go: Equivocation is running through Dec. 13 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle. Showtimes and ticket information available here.