Conrad Beck writes:
|Jenny Hill and Simon Nisbett|
Photo: Richard Wilcocks
A performance of A Rehearsal of the Life and Death of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex by Merry Melancholy (Jenny Hill and Simon Nisbett) took place in the performance space of Leeds Library last Thursday (27 September) in front of a substantial, very appreciative audience. It was a rare treat, more a recital than a play.
Jenny Hill was in role as 'Susannah' and Simon Nisbett as 'Richard' who are rehearsing and planning for a book launch - in 1624. The book in question is Honour in his Perfection by Gervase Markam, which is dedicated to the live of Robert Devereux, who was, it turns out, not very perfect. Arcane? Entertaining? Relevant to today? Yes to all of those. Mainly entertaining.
Shaped, most appropriately on this occasion, like a teardrop, the lute was the popular instrument of choice in the Renaissance period, closely related to the oud played then and now in the Arab world and probably an import in medieval times from Spain. It was valued for its gentle, meditative sound and has been increasingly popular in the last few decades.
Devereux knew one of its most famous users - the great singer, composer and lutenist John Dowland, who died in 1626, a couple of years after Markam's book was published. His music was everywhere, and he was one of the many artists (like playwright Christopher Marlowe) who dabbled in espionage on his jaunts to perform in countries like France and Denmark, under the control of Elizabeth's spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. There were rumours that he was a secret Catholic.
In conversations between Susannah and Richard, the details of Devereux's life were relayed to the audience. His relationship with Elizabeth was crucial. A reckless and attention-seeking man who was loved by the London masses, it seems, he was really worried that she was a mere woman, and like other courtiers, tried to install himself as her lover and possible replacement. It worked up to a point.
On one occasion, presumably because of a tiff, he turned his back on her, something one never, ever does, and she boxed his ears. At this, his hand went to his sword. He actually survived, but she sent him abroad on official business. This was not as a diplomatic emissary but as a military leader. Aristocrats were assumed to be good at things like that.
He arrived in Ireland to engage with the army of the rebellious Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Oppression and conquest of the barbarous Irish was the order of the day, but Devereux failed miserably, and one morning, back in London, he barged unannounced into the presence of the queen, something one never, ever does. She was outraged, because he hadn't washed since the campaign and she hadn't had her wig or her make-up put on.
He was ordered into house arrest, and his monopoly on the import of sweet wine into England was curtailed. At home, he wrote lyrics in the fashionable melancholy style and no doubt finished off the last of his stock of sweet wine with his friend John Dowland. It was not long after this that he managed to organise a doomed, quickly-crushed coup against the royal palace, ending up in the Tower of London to have his head chopped off.
All of this fascinating story (the theme of a number of films and plays) was conveyed to us exquisitely with Simon Nisbett's lute and Jenny Hill's voice. Devereux, Dowland, Fulke Greville and others were all featured. Here is the opening part of probably the most well-known one, by Dowland:
Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
Exil'd for ever let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn