You wait 400 years for a production of Christopher Marlowe’s last play, and then along come three at once. The students of Cambridge University’s Marlowe Society performed it last month, and another version is about to be staged in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral, but this is apparently London’s first full professional staging of The Massacre at Paris, as far as we can tell, since 1594.
It is a fascinating historical project in several ways. The venue is the studio theatre which adjoins the archaeological site of Bankside’s first playhouse, the Rose; indeed, director James Wallace uses the site itself, behind a gauze upstage, as an additional space. The polygonal outline of the original playhouse is shown in red strip lighting along the floor, which reflects in a shallow pool to suggest the river Seine flowing red with blood. For the play covers some 20 years in France’s Wars of Religion; the title refers to the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of thousands of Huguenots.
The surviving text of the play (possibly reconstructed from actors’ memories years later, possibly a bootleg publication, possibly recording cuts made for performance) is only about half as long as the average Elizabethan/Jacobean drama. Wallace gets the playing time up to 90 minutes with pauses, a few over-portentous deliveries, business and a piquant though discreet soundtrack of mostly psychobilly songs. It can seem patchy; the language is repetitious, and if you’ve ever yearned for a Jacobethan play to be shorn of its rhetoric and just skip from event to event, this version may remind you to be careful what you wish for.
The performance begins on a slow burn (Kristin Milward in particular, as queen mother Catherine de’ Medici, could use mustachios to twirl in her early speeches), but the cast of 14 get into their stride and leave behind reservations that this might be merely a post-student profit-share staging. John Gregor’s Duke of Guise seals his villainous credentials with an impressive soliloquy early on, and James Askill’s Henry III grows up from an awkwardly played child clutching his cuddly toy into an almost competent statesman (and something of a gay lothario). But it proves to be an animated excavation of a historical curio, just round the corner from the reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe.