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The Counterfeiters' Tragedy

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The Counterfeiters' Tragedy was directed for the London stage by first-time fringe director Tod Higginson.  Following is a short essay with some narrative and contextual analysis, and hopefully without too many 'spoilers'...

Change, Sex, Redemption and Commerce in The Counterfeiters' Tragedy

It's a flattering and thrilling thing to be able to stage the premiere production of a new, but authentically Jacobean drama.  For those who don't know, The Counterfeiters' Tragedy is a modern Jacobean pastiche, with more than a few 21st century twists and turns.  Blank verse, Senecan structure and 17th century setting, contrast with some very modern behaviours and attitudes in a work that links one arm with 'Tis Pity She's a Whore or The Revenger's Tragedy, and the other with Kill Bill or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

In fact, both Tarantino and the new generation of Japanese jidaigeki and Chinese wu-xia filmmakers have much in common with the theatre of blood drama of our forebears.  They deal with honour, with revenge, with behaviour that is often amoral yet internally logical; we are shown the results of economic power being traded, or snatched; and the results of when money is given precedence over life, the behaviour that results when 'authority' is challenged, and when established mores are subverted or broken.  Like Jacobean drama, these are combined with a deftness and lightness of style that is as energetic and engaging as it is cathartic, even when steeped in blood.  The subject matter and fate of the protagonists may often be bleak, but the stylish and breathless performance is balletic and even sublime.  The virtuous and the morally indifferent may meet their fates along the well as the miscreant; all in all it can be an exciting and unpredictable ride.

The strong female characters and level of sexual ambiguity in Counterfeiters give the show an additional cutting edge that slices-and-dices its way through to today's audience, backed by the linguistic power, political transgressiveness and amoral relish of the drama driven by the uncertain and dangerous political climate of the seventeenth century.  In the best tradition of the English plays of the Jacobean period, a foreign setting (Italy, where hot blood and passions can run riot, at least in literature) provides the means examine our own society; the 'other' is proxy for the self.  The drama is a smoked mirror through which we may be presented with ourselves, awry, but recognisable.

The Counterfeiters' Tragedy is set in early 17th century Italy, as the established power base of land and heredity starts to give way to the portable power of currency and commerce.  Not so coincidentally, our staging was produced at a time where, in London and elsewhere, the scales have tipped back towards property as the base of socio-economic power, where soaring rents and purchase prices again begin to alter lifestyles extensively. 

The economic realities of the world of the Counterfeiters feels strikingly familiar; the power politics are distinctly feudal, but the desire for social mobility and the portable power of currency subverts established order.  From an agrarian rural economy of the Italian countryside, Roberto plots his course towards the acquisition of material wealth and possessions, rather than a more nebulous sense of power or lust.  Even further, it's only the act of acquisition that provides any relief - the possessing in itself is relatively unimportant.  Having wormed his way through his inheritance quickly, and with his appetite for acquisition unsated and unsateable, Roberto has almost no choice but to seek power to maintain his lifestyle. 

Roberto's behaviour is driven by an acquisitory instinct, power through purchase, and sense of entitlement, that consumes him without ever leaving him satisfied.  His involvement with women, too, has hints that it's about the acquisition, not the possession - his unhealthy entanglement with his sister, his cruel attitude toward Giovanna and a possible acquisatory eye on Emilia (who is smart enough to see through him) point to wanting to-have-had, but having no interest in maintaining possession.

Roberto's subversive modernism is counterpointed with Stefano's regard for family, history, and honour.  The young Duke-Regent's sense of the past weighs heavily upon him.  His father's campaign achievements will eclipse his, no matter what his own successes.  He has a sense of duty and responsibility, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his own beliefs and desires. 

Stefano's sexuality, and its presentation in the play (as almost exclusively homo-centric rather than hetero-centric), are particularly interesting, as while his sexuality is a strong driving force in the story, in itself is not the story, as seems to be the case in many otherwise laudable mainstream contemporary works.  Counterfeiters is not fatalistic, despite the instances of fateful and fatal choices and prescience; but it does present the notion that human endeavour seldom has the intended outcome; and the characters struggle to adapt to their altered situations, without exception failing to get, or keep, what they set out to. 

Stefano establishes himself as an agnostic, if not absolutely an atheist, with his beliefs about life and afterlife; but because of this, his sense of legacy and responsibility to the history of this world is higher.  He is unwilling to be the one to lose the Dukedom from his family.  He seeks to cast himself in the mould of the great soldiers of antiquity and legend; Achilles, or perhaps Alexander.  While not uncomfortable per-se with his sexuality, he is heavily conflicted by his love for Girolamo, a bookish youth, not a comrade in arms as Patrokolus to Achilles.  And he is unable to make the choice of 'the warmth of a bed' and a quiet life with Girolamo, presented here potentially as a positive, redemptive prospect (and possible, with discretion, even in seventeenth century Italy), over revenge and the 'call of his campaign'.  At length he's even willing to countenance political (and possibly eventually sexual) union with Giovanna to restore his state and family. 

For the narrative to maintain a progress of its own, and not be merely a depiction of the aftermath and ripples of an initial transgression, redemption must be a tangible possibility; for Stefano, the available redemption is such that his personality and climate leads him to refuse it, but it is no foregone conclusion. 

For Giovanna, the chance of redemption only emerges with the revelation of Roberto's calumny; his initial advances, prompting the initial transgression, offer her a convincing, but counterfeit, sense of redemption from a marriage devoid of excitement, although not entirely devoid of affection.  Giovanna's religiosity provides no barrier to this - for her, Venus is a higher authority any man, institution, or any other god.

Giovanna later comes to make tangible steps towards redemption, with her vengeance transfigured into desire to restabilise, but by this time there are so many active elements in play, 'free radicals', to borrow a modern scientific term, that 'between the desire and the enactment there is many a slip'.

Octavia's moral corruption and dark seeds of vengeance are somewhat more oblique. Certainly she is no less bloodthirsty than her brother Roberto; and there's a hint that she's initially spurred on to set the plot in motion with the idea that she's been rejected by Stefano.  As the highest ranking (and with such a compact cast of characters, the only) eligible lady not related to him by blood or marriage, she might have had a long held expectation to one day become Duchess, an expectation probably shared and encouraged by the Duke, Giovanna, and Roberto. 

With the idea that Stefano may have rejected her romantic and sexual advances on the eve of going to war, the humiliation would stew, and she and Roberto contrive their plot via letters sent to and from the field.  Denied another object of sexual attention, a latent incestuous desire grows, and between them a plot is contrived to place Roberto as 'head man'.  Her subsequent quest for revenge is not alone enough to condemn her, but though sin is not always punished, naivete often is.

Only Roberto seems beyond redemption in the human sphere; his sociopathy offers him no possibility of remorse or change, and, dissatisfied with his prize, nothing can fill the void for him.  If the last refuge of a scoundrel is religion, the efficacity of his late call for redemption may depend on authorities outside of this sphere.

While the 'noble' characters in the world of the Counterfeiters behave generally ignobly and unpredictably, the position of the worker in the world of the play is particularly precarious; their aspirations and choices are restricted by the behaviour and attitudes of those with pre-existing power.  The repercussions of the shaking of an established order may offer a one shot chance at money or advancement; but for the unwary, the pearls are as likely to be poison.

For the workers in Counterfeiters, the jingle of coins is not about affluence or luxury - it's about survival and a measure of independence and self determination, not needing to be reliant on the continuing good favour of a 'master'; and the generosity of the masters or masters' successors with the advent of old age or ill health.  A small amount of capital would redeem them from servitude and dependence, and enable them to set up with an inn or a bawdy-house, a small trading enterprise or a money lending business.  With the example of the Ferryman, to have a boat is a means to make some disposable income, and not be entirely dependent on the land for sustenance.

For Lucia, a high-status lady's maid, her continued employment will be based on her disposition, her appearance, and her ability to work.  The offer of a capital sum for her part in a murder plot is impossible to resist.  A small sum might buy a hostelry in the manner of Mistress Quickly's, and may even attract a hard-up but handsome husband.  The alternative?  Begging, stealing, and whoring, should she no longer be desired as a lady's maid. 

For Alessandro and Benetto, the two soldiers, their duties probably vary between tax collecting, light 'policing' of the surrounding countryside, and guard duty in the castle.  Where 'preferment comes by the letter', to have a powerful man in one's debt is a short cut to advancement, but equally, dangerous for all concerned.  Staking their allegiance to Stefano is a calculated gamble, but the expectations of the two parties are at odds.  For Stefano, of the old family, old money and hereditary expectations, preferment and payment is the great man's gift, not the labourer's right, and may be offered or withdrawn according to his whim.  But for new man Alessandro, 'When I am owed my wages, I'll not beg'.  His allegiance is a commercial property, the only one he has, and to be maintained it must be paid for.  The masterless man has in common with the wandering ronin; and when loyalty is no longer a social or economic advantage, it will be withdrawn or reversed.

Hemingway wrote, 'all stories end with death'; The Counterfeiters' Tragedy, does literally (and in spades), and metaphorically.  All the Machiavellian machinations, the plots, the best-laid plans, are thwarted by death; of plotters, of messengers, of revengers, of innocents.  The playing out of human drama on this ultimate scale has a quality at once operatic and personal; and we are redeemed through witnessing the error, the calumny, and the virtue of others.

Sex in Counterfeiters is barren, not fertile.  Currency is offered, given, stolen, but ends as an inert artefact, 'worth nothing save in someone's hand'.  Change, as a force, consumes itself, leaving behind an altered, but restabilised status quo.  The plot 'dies', but its effects are lasting.

The narrative ends with a final hope of establishing a new equilibrium.  As in Romeo and Juliet, a new day dawns, bringing with it 'a glooming peace'.  The true effects of the play, one may hope as a director, are felt by the audience.

text copyright © 2007 Tod Higginson

Tod Higginson has directed a number of short films, theatrical works and radio pieces. 
The Counterfeiters' Tragedy was his first work as director on the London fringe.  He graduated with a First Class BA Hons degree in Drama and Theatre Arts from Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 2003.  He has worked as a technical director on the London stage and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and had audio work broadcast on London's Resonance FM and the world wide web.

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