Progress Premieres, Progress Theatre

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By Louis Train

Reading’s Progress Theatre introduces two original plays to the world this year with their annual Progress Premieres event: The Equivocators, an historical drama by Dan Clarke, and Peter’s Wife, a new social comedy by Christine Moran.

In The Equivocators, William Shakespeare bursts into the home of Ben Jonson demanding to know where his stolen papers are. Jonson acts aloof – “What papers? Have some wine!” – but as the evening progresses, and the two men talk and drink, Jonson’s intentions for his fellow writer become clear.

The Equivocators is ostensibly based on playwright Dan Clarke’s hypothesis that Shakespeare might have been a Catholic radical with ties to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605; this historical revision is worked into the play as a kind of literary interrogation of Shakespeare by Jonson. What shines through in The Equivocators, though, is not Clarke’s vision of history, but his dialogue, which is witty and warm, and which powerfully evokes the personalities of two men known chiefly for the words they wrote in the voices of others.

(An aside: why is Shakespeare always depicted on stage as awkward and ineffectual? Is this playwrights trying to kill their God so they can get out of Sunday school?)

Alex McCubbin and Christopher Dangerfield are in fine form as Ben and Will, and director Kate Shaw has whipped together a sumptuous set and beautiful lighting. If there’s one thing The Equivocators needs, it’s literally anything other than two men talking and drinking: although the conversation moves swiftly, and the topic is never banal, the action quickly becomes cyclical: sit, stand, pour some wine, sit.

Peter’s Wife is never predictable. In the first ten minutes, we learn that Peter is having an affair with his brother-in-law’s ex-girlfriend, who is also married to his sister-in-law’s gynecologist. The story is narrated by Julie, Peter’s wife, who realises as events unfold around her just how powerless she is in her own world. Always thought of as Peter’s wife, Amy’s mum, or Nick’s brother, Julie finds opportunity in chaos and slowly begins to discover who she is, and what she is capable of.

Aidan Moran directs a quick-moving, sharp-talking cast that never lags or lulls for a second. The set is bright and cheerful, appropriate to the this is the 21st century-meets-anything can happen vibe of the show. Some of the characters are written a bit broadly – Anna is a sociopath, Sam is a saint – and the resolution is rather abrupt, and with a rather bizarre number of pregnancies. Still, Christine Moran tells a compelling story of the ways that people can find purpose and identity in the oddness of the modern world.

Progress Premieres runs through 4 May.

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