The noblest nurseries

Shakespeare’s Globe actors were joined by Members of Gray’s Inn for a special staged reading of Supposes, written in 1556 by George Gascoigne, a fellow Gray’s Inn Member. The rarely played drama returned to the Hall in which it was first performed. James Wallace, the director, and Master Roger Eastman, one of the barrister/actors, reflect on the day.

The chance to do the very first play written in English prose in the actual building where it was first performed doesn’t come around too often. That play, Supposes, is: “A Comedy written in the Italian tongue by Ludovico Ariosto, Englished by George Gascoigne of The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn, Esquire, and there presented.” It was acted by lawyers in 1566 in the same Hall to which, 447 years later on 3 November 2013, Shakespeare’s Globe brought its Read Not Dead on the road project. Joining the professional actors were four current Gray’s members, who bravely took the stage at 3pm for a fully staged script-in-hand performance after only beginning rehearsals at 10am.

That frenetic pace is an inevitable part of Read Not Dead, where those involved donate their time for free to Globe Education’s on-going project that aims to breathe life into the 500 or so surviving professional plays from Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Using costumes provided by the actors and items scavenged from the Globe Theatre propstore, the real star was, quite rightly, the Hall itself.

Gray’s Inn Hall proved a glorious and beautiful setting for Gascoigne’s translation of Ariosto’s second play I suppositi, originally performed in 1509 at the Court of the Duke of Ferrara and his young wife, Lucrezia Borgia. The action takes place in a street in Ferrara over the course of one day. The two doors of the Hall’s screen became the entrances to the two houses of the play. The first house contained Polynesta (Beth Park), her father Damon (Master Roger Eastman), and her disguised-as-a-servant lover Erostrato (John Hopkins). The other was home to the latter’s actual servant Dulippo (Charlie Anson) who, disguised as his master, tricks a Sienese stranger (David Meyer) into playing “his” father Philogano in order to outbid a dowry offered by Polynesta’s rival wooer, an old lawyer called Cleander (Sir Michael Burton), in order to delay that proposed match. When the real Philogano (Master Charles Douthwaite) turns up at the house in search of his son accompanied by a Ferrarese Innkeeper (Master Colin Manning) the comedy of stolen, ‘supposed’ identities really begins.

“This was a splendid theatrical and historical occasion, of which I was thrilled to be part, even though playing an ageing lawyer who did not get the girl. It is good to know that 450 years on from Gascoigne, Gray’s Inn can still host a rousing Revel.”

If the plot sounds a little like The Taming of the Shrew without the Kate/Petruchio plot, that’s because this is clearly a major source for Shakespeare in writing it. Of course, this is not the only connection he had with the Inn. His patron Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was a Gray’s man, and Shakespeare himself performed here on 28 December 1594 in his own The Comedy of Errors, based, like Gascoigne’s comedy of Supposes, on a play by Plautus. A third play by the Roman playwright provided the plot for Twelfth Night, performed on 2 February 1602, at Middle Temple Hall.

This Read Not Dead on the road performance provided not only a chance for lawyers, actors and audiences to enjoy the shared experience of reviving this milestone of English theatre, but also to remember Shakespeare’s debt not only to the commedia erudite of the Italian renaissance, but also to what Ben Jonson in his dedication to his Every Man Out of His Humour called “The noblest nurseries of humanity and liberty, in the Kingdome: the INNS OF COURT.”

Author details: 
James Wallace

James is an actor and director. He trained at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and over the last 20 years has worked extensively in theatre and TV. He has been involved with Shakespeare’s Globe since 1998, and has directed or acted in 80 plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries for the Globe Education project, Read Not Dead.

Master Roger Eastman

Roger was called to the Bar in 1978. He was appointed as a Deputy Queen’s Bench Master in
February 2003 and then as a Deputy District Judge on the South Eastern Circuit in July 2003. He was appointed a Queen’s Bench Master in April 2009.