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The Massacre at Paris review ★★★★

St Bartholomew's Day Massacre

In 16th-century France, Where’s Wally was a far more brutal affair

In its own odd way this just might be one of the theatrical events of the year.

The performance space at the Rose, with its small, oddly shaped stage and intimate seating would be like any number of other fringe venues were it not for the fact that the backdrop for the stage is a cavernous underground void, hidden beneath office buildings just round the corner from the Globe. This on its own makes it an extraordinary place to do theatre – vast, atmospheric, echoing – and that’s before you realise that trapped beneath a protective layer of concrete and water out there in the gloom, marked out by glowing lines of cheesy but somehow evocative red rope lights,  are the remains of the old Rose Theatre. Built in 1587, the Rose pipped the Globe to the post in the proliferation of public theatres that sprung up around Bankside in Elizabethan London. The Rose’s theatrical history is as august as they come: this was the first public playhouse to put on a show by one William Shakespeare, and the man himself trod these boards as an actor. This play – Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris – debuted at the theatre in  1593, then after a few revivals, disappeared almost entirely, not being performed in London for 400 years. Until now.

The Rose Theatre remains, London

Lights mark the foundations of the Rose

Given the weight of history that comes with performing this play in this venue then, it’s very much to this production’s credit that we’re not offered anything fusty or reverential, but rather a bold and refreshing take on the material. We’re not expected to enjoy this night at the theatre merely as a piece of history.

This is all founded on one fairly crucial realisation: this play, fascinating though it is for all sorts of reasons, is not – how to put this – very good. Believed to be one of Marlowe’s last plays, there’s a strong theory that the only text that survives is not as Marlowe wrote it. More likely it was cobbled together from memory after Marlowe’s death by actors who’d known the play. It’s a theory that makes intuitive sense as you watch. It’s short (90 minutes in all), it’s  heavy on action, there’s little subtlety or distinctive language – indeed a lot of lines are lifted directly from Shakespeare. It’s sort of like what happens when a group of friends get together for brunch and, clutching Bloody Marys for dear life, try to piece together what happened the night before. Eventually they remember the juicy bits, but most of the finer details are lost forever to the haze.

The play that resulted from this bastardisation is a deeply odd little fishy. Although it feels like a history play, when it was written around 1592, the events at its heart – the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572 and its consequences – were live, contemporary and unresolved episodes in the brutal French Wars of Religion, still raging after 30 long years. The massacre, in which up to 10,000 protestants were slain by Catholics in Paris and across France, remains a deeply complicated, murky affair in the annals of history. Not so in Marlowe’s version, which strips out all ambiguity, casting the Catholic Duke of Guise, Henri III and the Queen Regent Catherine de Medici as inkier-than-ink bad guys who revel in the slaughter, informing us at every stage of their evil motives. Marlowe even includes a murder-by-poisoned-glove (something that’s not possible, let alone historical), playing into the popular image of the Catherine as an arch Machiavellian manipulator who employed her own full time poisoner.

At first, it’s easy to read this play as a piece of pure protestant propaganda, calculated to appeal to ordinary Elizabethans, their Queen and, as importantly, her censors – with whom Marlowe was shortly to get into a spot of bother, in the arrest that preceded his death at the age of just 29. This is certainly sensational, The Tudors-does-history type stuff, but it soon becomes clear that it’s more complicated than simple propaganda. Firstly, given that Guise, Henri III and Catherine are cast as the perpetrators of this Catholic atrocity, it’s odd both that we see events so squarely from their point of view, and that all the protestant characters are so flimsily written. Henri of Navarre, who emerges at the end of the play as King of France (though at the time of the first performance he was still fighting to establish himself and end the wars) should be the knight in shining armour of the piece. But in this version of events he’s about as interesting as, say, Prince Eric from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. 

The play seems to have been originally subtitled The Tragedy of Guise, an especially odd reading of a story about the thousands of deaths the Duke ordered and perpetrated. Given, though, that this is a play in which eventually everyone dies, many critics have wondered whether the senselessness and violence is in fact the point. In a spiral of events as futile and horrific as the Wars of Religion, there are no winners, and today’s ringmasters will be eaten by the lions tomorrow. If so, this was subversive stuff, in line with Marlowe’s rumoured atheism, even if he does insert an intriguing though unconvincing scene at the climax of the play in which the dying Henri III sends his love to the Queen of England. To add further complexity, the shadowy, silent English agent whom Henri calls to deliver his message is suggested by many to be a representation of Marlowe himself, who almost certainly dabbled in espionage for England.

Given what a tangle of a play this is, this production, directed by James Wallace, does about the most sensible thing you could possibly do with it: have a lot of fun. Styled as a 1960s British gangster film, this a is a fast-paced, energetic and, given the subject matter, surprisingly entertaining evening. Where the script draws characterisation towards the pantomimey, neither director nor cast hold back, sinking their teeth into villainy and launching with relish into an orgy of violence. Whilst the violence is stylised rather than shocking, the clever device of clouds of red confetti bursting out of each dismembered or defenestrated victim has the cumulative effect, after murder upon murder, of trashing the stage completely. These piles of red paper, with channels cut through them from the lifeless feet of yet more corpses being dragged off stage, serve effectively to convey the near-farcical madness of the massacre.

Clever use of space doesn’t stop there. The ghostly red outlines of the Rose’s foundation suddenly become a bridge, or the Seine full to bursting with drowning protestants. Sections of the play are performed down on the very ruins of the Rose itself, the actors picked out of the darkness by shaky torchlight. The effect is altogether haunting.

It’s also an admirably clear production, hacking a path through these unfamiliar events that makes the story instantly accessible, and delivering the dialogue with complete conviction, clarity and an energy that makes it all seem utterly modern. The ensemble cast gel well, each making the most of moments of comedy and poignancy. Special mention should go to James Askill, who shows us Henri III transforming from simpering child to steely king, defiant in death, before our very eyes in the short space of 90 minutes. John Gregor is a silver-tongued, chilling Duke of Guise. Delivering on the promise of that Tragedy of Guise subtitle, he’s felled by his own Caesar-like delusions of invincibility.

This Massacre of Paris takes the bloody history of religious war and the impenetrable mysteries of Marlowe’s text and writes them out in strawberry laces. It’s a momentous event in London theatre history, and – more than that – it’s a hoot.

★★★★

The Massacre of Paris plays at The Rose until 29th March 2014

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