Very little is known about Thomas Tallis the man. Looking back over the six Tudor monarchs who reigned during his life, it is clear this 16th-century English composer lived through chaotic and violent times. But was his apparent willingness to shape his sacred music to the religious whims of each successive king and queen the sign of political cunning? Or was it, rather, the result of a devout and committed quest for peace?
This is the more-or-less blank canvas on which Jessica Swale has drawn her portrait – Thomas Tallis – the first new play written for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Well-known characters (caricatures?), from Henry VIII to the young Elizabeth I, propel the piece through history, while threads of narrative inspired by contemporary texts, including Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, add depth and human interest. Tallis appears as an earnest narrator, a man attempting to define his relationship with God, and throughout, the drama is interspersed with excerpts of his music, aptly chosen, and beautifully sung by members of The Sixteen.
We see Tallis, played by Brendan O’Hea, accepting the king’s request to serve him during the dissolution of the monasteries and – in a neatly conceived scene – fretting over a composition that would conform to the new Protestant standards, while singers perform the simple psalm setting “God grant we grace” (from his Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter of 1567) around the outer edge of the auditorium. And Simon Harrison and Susie Trayling deserve a mention for the energy and flexibility they bring to multiple characters.
But the play is let down by its uneven tone. The best moments capture a sense of secrecy and superstition in the royal courts; the worst veer dangerously close to Blackadder parody. The strange juxtaposition of costumes doesn’t help. It’s all well and good to have the singers distinguished by white tie and ball gowns, and Tallis and the monarchs in 16th-century dress, but one cannot help but feel a little wearied when guards appear with machine guns.
Of course, the theatre itself adds something special to the evening, and director Adele Thomas makes imaginative use of space and candlelight. It is a treat to hear talented singers performing with such clarity and immediacy. And it is an ambitious play, with an elegant script, that succeeds in focusing the mind – it’s just hard to imagine the drama holding its own elsewhere.