Shakeshaft: play review

Play review by Paul Nicolson SJ

Likening the process of discernment to the search for harmony among different voices is an idea with a long history in the Ignatian tradition. Ignatius himself records experiencing the three Persons of the Trinity as notes, played by a key-board instrument, combining to form a chord. If this is your understanding, though, what becomes of the discordant voices, those that are seemingly impossible to fit into the melody?

This is one, and only one, of the ideas explored in a new play by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, given its world premiere in Swansea’s Little Theatre last week. It is based on an intriguing premise. If a young William Shakespeare had met the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion in the last few months of Campion’s life, what might the two have had to say to each other? Shakespeare would not yet have written any of the plays which brought him renown. Campion had already turned his back on what could have been a glittering literary and academic career to live as a hunted fugitive.

The premise is intriguing because it just might have happened. In 1581 Alexander Hoghton, a wealthy Lancashire landowner, left a bequest in his will to a man named William Shakeshaft. Shakeshaft, it seems, had been involved in preparing entertainments, plays and masques, for the household. In that same year Edmund Campion stayed with a number of members of the Hoghton family, who were loyal to the ‘old religion’, as he toured northern England ministering to beleaguered Catholics there. Adding a tradition that Shakespeare in his youth had been a country schoolmaster, possibly in Lancashire, gives enough of a foundation for Williams to construct what he terms a ‘fantasia’.

His Campion (using the alias ‘Edward Hastings’ throughout the play) wonders whether Shakeshaft feels called to join other young men studying abroad in the hope of returning as Catholic missionaries. He might even consider enrolling in the Jesuit ‘company’. Shakeshaft is unwilling to be bound by the older man’s seeming certainties. For him, truth needs to encompass the discordant voices. Campion, urbane and worldly, at first rather patronises his young friend, but by the end of the play, betrayed and on the road to martyrdom, urges him to pursue his vision.

This is only one strand in a complex network. What are the effects on a household, upstairs and downstairs, of harbouring a wanted man? Parallels with ISIS and Al Qaeda are clear. What is the value, artistic or otherwise, of empathy, of trying to get inside another person to see the world through their eyes? Once new ideas have been formulated, is it ever really possible to go back to the way that things were beforehand? In the programme synopsis, several of the play’s 11 scenes are described as discussions, and these are not always easy to understand fully on a first hearing. The author is aware of this. A number of times, characters complain that they don’t know what others are talking about!

Yet the piece works dramatically. It has a villain, Hoghton’s illegitimate daughter Meg, betraying the household in revenge for the supposed slights of her youth. Two of the characters, Hoghton and Campion, face their impending deaths with great courage. Shakeshaft observes the proceedings in ways that will clearly affect his later play-writing. And we find ourselves just as caught up in the lives of the servants, limited in their ability to shape their own destinies. To borrow an image from the end of the play, the possibility that Shakespeare met Campion has enabled Rowan Williams to craft a mirror for our own fractured times.