There are some forms of death that have quite naturally fallen out of fashion; once upon a time people were able to catch their death of cold as Sarah Miles did in Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, but no one does that any more, it’s a lost art. Perhaps in our more cynical modern world the least likely fictional death is to die of a broken heart, although in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama it was all the rage. Arguably Marianne in Sense and Sensibility gives it a go but we all know she was just being overly dramatic and spent too much time on rainy hillsides without her galoshes and mac.
So in John Ford’s 1630’s play The Broken Heart you may be unsurprised to hear that several people come a cropper either directly or indirectly as a result of their own or someone else’s heartbreak. And although the audience may find all this quite unlikely, I have to completely disagree with some of the critics and say this new production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in the Globe is so charming and beautifully staged that you will be completely captivated by it. The reviewers seem to personally dislike the play and have been rather unfair in judging this instead of the production (with a revival this is what they should focus on actually) and yes it is long and there are a lot of layered plot strands, so you’ll need to pay attention to keep track of who is who and who wants what, but it is thoroughly engaging and cleverly staged.
Set in Sparta – indicated by togas over Jacobean dress – the production opens violently with the snatching of Penthea from her lover Orgilus where she is taken to the alter to marry Bassanes instead, in a tactical marriage arranged without her consideration by her brother Ithocles. Orgilus flees to Athens but returns in disguise to watch over Penthea and his own sister Euphranea who has promised to remain single until his return. If you’re keeping up with this, meanwhile Ithocles goes to war and returns a conquering hero, regretting the part he played in his sister’s abduction and eager to make amends. His warrior status brings him close to the Royal family and he hopelessly falls in love with Princess Calantha who is meant to marry a local Prince named Nearchus. Ithocles’s fellow warrior Prophilus has fallen in love with Euphranea so Orgilus must openly return to assent to the marriage and intent on revenge sets in motion a series of tragic events which results in a fairly high death count and a trail of broken hearts.
I know that all sounds pretty complicated and you can’t day-dream but none of it seems superfluous in any way and the play hurtles along at an impressive pace. One of the most interesting elements here is the staging which cleverly uses the confines of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to impressive effect. The use of the pit entrance and staircase up to the stage mean scenes take place below the stage directly in front of the pit audience which is fantastic for an engagement perspective – these aren’t lofty characters acting out a story somewhere above you but real people standing half a meter away – and it’s always impressive when actors can be that close and not have it break their concentration, particularly with people like me staring at them judgementally – I’m practising my tough critic face but it probably just looks a bit gormless.
Director Caroline Steinbeis has also used the two circle levels to deliver scenes and characters are seen climbing onto the stage from the lower circle, as well as using the traditional entrances from the back of the stage. I think this use of the space really helped the audience connect more with the production. A mention also for the amazing costumes by Wardrobe Manager Megan Cassidy and her team, the women’s dresses in particularly carefully denoted their status, and any changes to it, as well as having a slightly barbed feel reiterating how the female characters are used as pawns for male advantage. The golden armour for the King and Princess Calantha is really quite stunning and very regal. Despite the togas over jerkins which looked great the men have to put up with some knee-length pantaloons teemed with knee-high sandals – really not that sexy but they do somehow still look like manly warriors.
The acting from the entire cast is very good and you quickly become engaged in their stories. They felt like one complete company and worked together really nicely, mixing the warlike feel of returning soldiers with the romantic plots, bitter jealousies and ultimate demise of several characters. Luke Thompson once again shows he’s well on the way to very big things by bringing out the warlike dignity of his Ithocles as well as a more tender side in regretting his sister’s marriage and love for Calantha. It’s easy for a good actor to stand out in bad crowd but considerably more impressive to stand-out in a good one such as this, so it’s interesting to feel the production lift even higher whenever Thompson is on stage, and he has a natural feel for the verse. For The Public Reviews I previously wrote about his terrific Mark Anthony last year at the Globe, followed by an engaging role in Tiger Country at the Hampstead, and it’s only a matter of time before he lands a major TV role and hysterical fans will then queue round the block and crash ticketing websites to see him on stage (as with Cumberbatch and Tennant who both did years of theatre before hitting the big time). Should any of that come to pass, and if he continues to make shrewd choices it really should, you heard it here first!
Owen Teale has the semi-villainous role of Bassanes the jealous husband who steals Penthea, but here has a more buffoonish quality which adds a necessary touch of lightness to the serious love dramas that concern everyone else. Amy Morgan also lends dignity to the tragic Penthea who, despite her broken heart, bravely accepts the choice her brother and husband have made. Brian Ferguson’s Orgilus moves nicely between initial despair and bloodthirsty revenge while also accepting there will be consequences of his shocking actions. There really is no weakness in this cast and although Sarah MacRae’s Calantha could be a little more regal, this production can only strengthen as the run continues.
So, people may no longer die of broken hearts but in the Globe’s latest production you’ll see it’s not quite as romantic an idea as you may think. Here, in the beautiful setting of the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, you’ll see that the pursuit of love is as brutal and bloody as any war fought for power and land. So ignore the critics, John Ford’s play will leave you with plenty to think about but also lots to enjoy – even if you get lost in the twisted plot the staging and acting are so impressive that you will feel transported nonetheless. Just be sure not to catch your death of cold on the Southbank on the way home!
The Broken Heart is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre until 18th April. Tickets start at £25-£45 and £10 standing tickets are available.