Ann McFerran on the first performance of a previously unknown Jacobean play
In addition to her role as the head of drama at Alleyn's School, Eileen Chivers, has spent the last several months playing dramaturgish sleuth as she set about the production of a previously unknown Jacobean play.
Having been discovered in manuscript at Dulwich College, The Telltale, it transpires, may have been written by Thomas Dekker or William Rowley or Middleton or even a combination of these playwrights. Intriguingly, next to one speech of the major protagonist is written "Mine" suggesting that this annotation may have been written by Sir Edward Alleyn himself.
As Eileen Chivers writes in the programme notes, "the challenge of putting on a production of an unknown play was overwhelming: the equivalent of an undiscovered country for an explorer."
In pursuit of her treasure, our dramaturg-detective has journeyed from Norfolk to Dorset, and conducted correspondences from Oxford to California. Certainly, there is a magical syncronicity in watching this first performance a mere stone's throw from the place the play was discovered, some 400 years after it was written.
The play opens with the celebration of the festival of Saint Valentine, when the Florentine forces have triumphed over the Venetians, and the Duke of Florence is suspicious that his Duchess has been unfaithful to him with a courtier.
Like so many Jacobean plays, it is choc-a-plot, so to speak, with intricate disguises - boys dressed as girls, a duke disguised as a ruffian. Although it is unusually convoluted and difficult to follow - and perhaps this is the reason it has remained undiscovered for 400 years - eventually the major protagonists overcome misplaced jealousy and the play ends as they look forward to their various marriages.
The Alleyn's young players are first-rate with Ben Shepherd, superb as the Duke of Florence, leading a talented cast which also includes strong performances from Alex Curtis, Bea Hankey, Frances Buckroyd, Kate Mckerrel and Jenni Pattison.
Ms Chivers' production is exuberant, stimulating and bold, imaginatively deploying the space in the Alleyn's great hall. Yet while one appreciates the opportunity to see the text uncut, Ms Chivers herself notes that it "would clearly benefit with some judicious pruning". The text which is top heavy in musical metaphor, is often so complex and lacking in dramatic structure, that the audiences frequently has to refer to the four pages of notes which accompanies the programme to understand exactly what is happening on stage. But Ms Chivers' intentions are utterly commendable, and her production a tribute to the talent and imagination of Alleyn's school.