As a first step in evaluating this production, it is necessary to set aside any blind reverence for English drama of Shakespeare’s age. The simple fact is that, regardless of when it was written and by whom, The Massacre at Paris is a truly abysmal play, lacking in literary quality, meaningful characterisations, moral purpose and modern relevance. It has not had a professional run in England for over four centuries and the reasons are plain for all to see. Set before the invention of chainsaws, it is close to the Elizabethan equivalent of a snuff movie in which every scene is more or less the same – characters enter, some kill and others get killed, characters exit. Who is killing whom and for what reason remain unclear, as does the overall plot which has something to do with 16th century religious conflicts and struggles for the French throne. In mitigation for the playwright, Christopher Marlowe, it is thought likely that his original text has been as badly mutilated as many of the characters in his play; however, whether this is true or whether he simply had a bad day at the office, surely it would have been more respectful to him to have let this tosh rest for at least another 400 years. Faced with insurmountable obstacles, director James Wallace seems to look to the Springtime for Hitler solution, by making what is already bad even worse, hoping that it will eventually become so bad that is good. Hence, the use of cartoon-like violence with characters spewing confetti, red for blood, white for other bodily fluids. Hence also some some over-the-top performances, most notably from Kristin Milward, who makes the Queen Mother a Cruella de Vil clone and from James Askill, who contributes a camp, sometimes asinine, sometimes porcine King Henry III. Yes there are plenty of laughs, many of them intentional, but laughs should not be what a play like this is about. The performance takes place on a platform above an archaeological dig on the site of the original Rose theatre, where this play was first performed; so indeed there could be merit in staging it as a kind of museum exhibit, but, if this had been the intention, would it not have been preferable to have performed it as it might have been seen in Marlowe’s day, rather than in modern dress and as a black comedy? Happily, it runs for only 90 minutes, so we do not have to wait too long for almost all the cast to shed their red confetti and for the Bourbons to take the biscuit. Terrible pun, terrible play.
Performance date: 13 March 2014