The Ballad of Lady Bessy

 

 

Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Bessy

Elizabeth Morris as Elizabeth of York with her House of Lancaster lineage behind

The Ballad of Lady Bessy

The Loft Theatre

Leamington Spa

*****

The Ballad of Lady Bessy is a new 90–plus minute play, written and directed for the Loft Theatre’s studio by David Fletcher.

It’s a remarkable and perceptive piece of writing, a taut and incisive view of a period of history that was a turning point for England; an era of murder and power–grabbing, cynicism, machinations and executions.

The play is riddled with tension and intrigue, verbal tussles and resolutions, a certain poignancy, female battles of wits, and as often as not, male acquiescence. Above all, the new play shows us a young woman (initially a late teenager) very much in control of her own mind, determined, assured, far from being a pawn but rather designing her own future, with the ability to be as ruthless as her forebears, but (mainly, apart from the Battle of Bosworth) without the bloodletting.

Fletcher paints us a character, and a very believable and convincing character indeed. Certain scenes in Shakespeare apart (Queen Margaret’s outburst in Richard III is a good example), the period has rarely been looked at from the female angle before. If one says that it – the play and the ballad that inspired it – spans the late medieval (Yorkist) demise – or survival - and early Tudors, it will be apparent that this ‘Bessy’ was no ordinary figure: indeed, none other than the grandmother of that other Bess, Queen Elizabeth I, and herself Queen of England from 1486 to her death on 11 February 1503, aged 37. She died on her own birthday, to the chagrin of her husband, the first Tudor monarch.

Her life is explored in a ballad almost certainly (though the copy we have is later) dating from the late 15th century, and one patently favouring Henry VII and his chief supporters at the Battle of Bosworth, notably Thomas, Lord Stanley.

She is, it follows, Elizabeth of York, one half of the famous Tudor rose, who achieved the singular feat of being granddaughter to a Lord Protector (Richard Duke of York), daughter to a King and Queen (Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville), sister to another (the short-lived Edward V, elder prince in the Tower), and niece (to Richard III, whom she was, as we see here, nearly compelled to marry). Then subsequently, wife (of Henry VII, who despite assertions partially owed his throne to her), mother (of the heir apparent, the teenage Prince Arthur; of King Henry VIII, her second son (she died when he was 11); of Margaret, Queen of Scotland, her elder daughter; and of Mary, Queen of France, her younger daughter). Three other offspring did not survive, and she expired upon the birth of her eighth child, Katherine).

Hence Elizabeth, or Bess, was grandmother to Henry VIII’s three surviving children, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I. Through her daughter Margaret she was ancestor of the Stuart dynasty, who were directly descended from herself and Henry VII.

henry and bessy

Pete Meredith as Henry VII with wife Bessy, Elizabeth of York

It is the kind of record to rival Queen Victoria’s. But in Fletcher’s riveting play we do not witness a pregnant queen. Rather we see the princess Elizabeth, a personality with drive and vision, patently capable of being a queen regnant (like her two granddaughters) in her own right. Far from being forced into a royal marriage, she rejects Richard when her mother, long his enemy, is inclined to accept: this engenders one of the many scintillating stand–up rows in the play between herself and Elizabeth Woodville (Susie May Lynch, a newcomer to the Loft making a very successful debut, depicting the former queen as part–harridan, part –vacillating, histrionic and largely unhinged in the wake of her husband’s early death aged 40, furious at the title ‘dowager’, and still, though powerless, machinating to retain her influence at court).

Believing Richard, perhaps in anticipation rather than fact, the murderer of her two brothers, ‘Bessie’ (the name seems ill fitting for so feisty a royal; even Henry, who dubs her ‘Bess’, believes that), so far from being a football, decides to throw her luck in with the Tudors. In a sense she can only jump one way or the other. And below the humanity of the part, so keenly depicted here (Elizabeth Morris takes us with her from the start and gives a stupendous performance in a role that, with its narrative portions, comes close to an extended monologue), she is to some extent a chip off the old block: like her mother, she hankers after power not obsolescence, but she has ten times the intelligence of the latter, and she deploys it to dazzling effect.

Fletcher’s written style is in itself striking, and especially stirring, because in places, without in the main aiming at passages or even couplets of blank verse, it has some of the directness and verbal felicity of that form (phrases like ‘in these fractious times’ rather capture it). It also has an enviable consistency: it maintains the style, hugely credibly, throughout. Hence we never for a moment lose sight of the feeling that we are in the era of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays.

Young Elizabeth’s sentiments, her insistence and her dogged determination, are in no way a 21st century figure superimposed upon the time of the battle of Bosworth. This is a woman who thinks for herself within the context of the period in which she lives. Her inspiring independence of mind and her ability to manage both mother and mother–in–law (Sue Moore, the Loft’s present Artistic Director and here as Lady Margaret Beaufort an almost terrifying and indeed regal presence; yet she can present the opposite: one remembers with pleasure her narrator in Under Milk Wood, and nostalgically her Mrs. Lintoot in The History Boys) and see off the pair of them.

Yet all will in fact win. Both begrudging elders will end up parents to the new king and queen, and forebears of a whole dynasty. And in Beaufort’s case, that craved–for– power behind the throne will continue. The Beauforts were – till now – excluded on bastardy grounds from a claim on the throne. But you would have thought Moore’s forceful if faltering authority went straight back to her ancestor John of Gaunt, forefather of the Lancastrian kings, and of herself.

elizabeth

Elizabeth of York  in a 16th century copy of a 15th century portrait

Fletcher does not lay genealogy on with a trowel. To help us, a few direct lines of descent, Yorkist and Lancastrian, are shown on the wall, and become rather effectively a sort of scenery (as when Elizabeth in a fit of anger hurls herself to one end: it is in fact the Lancastrian end); but these are minimal, not overegged. He explains how he has omitted, but rather included by heavy implication, some key characters we might have expected: Richard of Gloucester, with his ‘lifetime of loyalty to [your] father’; the two boys in the tower, Edward V and Richard of York; Hastings; or the real victor of Bosworth, Stanley.

However we do get the clash at Bosworth, ‘clash’ being the operative word, as musician Jonathan Fletcher added to his soothingly plucked Tudor plaints a whole cacophony of percussion supplied by members of the cast. It was all the battle we needed; it sounded quite savage enough.

Edward IV’s appearance here is brief, restricted to scene 1 (this being 1482), but is cleverly used to show the impression the eldest of his then five surviving daughters makes on him as one of the few plain–speaking and palpably intelligent people around him. Indeed we get the feeling that this Elizabeth is better at relating to men, whom she can conquer, than to women, whom she must see off and with whom she must do constant battle.

Even Henry looks to come under her thumb. And as for Bryan Ferriman’s delicious (catholic) Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Thomas Bourchier, great–grandson of Edward III, but – though clearly a larger presence on the Loft stage than this role permitted him (a wonderful Dylan Thomas’s Captain Cat, for instance) – now despite the blazing Wolseyan scarlet a hopeless waffling octogenarian intermediary (he died scarcely a year later, perhaps from the strain of their encounters), she sees him off a bit like Olivier’s Richard dealing with the hapless Bishop of Ely.  

Bessie’s defection to the Lancastrians will indeed cast her as ‘a quintessence of peace amid this maelstrom…’. Surely a keen observer of court for the past decade, she fully anticipates the danger from Gloucester: ‘the most political of them all’. She relishes her sick and throne–tired father’s assertion ‘You are cleverer than most of the kings of England since Matilda’ (she already knows), and calmly begins to weigh up his dream–prophecy that ‘you will wear the crown’. In a sense it’s her stepping–stone, all the firmer believed once her brothers are presumed dead.

Robert Lowe’s congenial costume makes Edward look more like, say, Richard the ‘Lord Protector’s’ (a term almost always used with sickened disdain here) subservient Lord Mayor than the usual portraits of the thirty–something Yorkist king, whose youth is unusually well captured in the TV series ‘The White Queen’. The battling mother and daughter, however, are both clad in a very royal purple, but slightly distinguished from one another. Given the play is essentially based on the verbal – a small acting space, though very adequately used – the appetising outfits certainly serve a purpose: the eye is beguiled: this is a fearsome battle of royalty.

Not least, as young Bess is so vividly brought to life by her namesake, Elizabeth Morris. This was a stupendous performance in my book: She is ever on her guard, conscious that ‘three out of six kings before father were deposed’ (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI – ‘Deposed kings don’t have a high life expectancy’). So will the next two be. Her pacing is quite superb, her sense of when and where to pause enviably assured.

In this narrow space Morris builds up Elizabeth’s personality with every part of her body: facial gesture, commanding chin, expressive neck even; her steps and strides and backward lurches, all to good purpose have endless variety. This is an incredibly closely–plotted interpretation. She is as striking even as she visibly declines to make a gesture as when she goes through with it. A master of rude dismissal, she learns to be hard, not brittle; and when her mother, first involuntarily then willingly withdrawn to sanctuary (Westminster, then Bermondsey), has yielded, ceased to be a rival, and dies she can nobly give in to genuine, believable grief. This was an astonishing performance for the Loft studio: intense, exciting, credible, finessed, in no way amateur.

tomb

Tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in Westminster Abbey

It’s warming, and helpful, the way a sly, obvious but not ostentatious, humour is allowed to creep into the text. The Archbishop is clearly part of it; so, although also pathetic or ironic, are those moments when her mother, historically strong, is so thoroughly worsted by her own daughter (as in the outrageously cruel ‘Why don’t you marry Richard? You can open your legs for England; you’ve done it before’.

We are told Henry (Pete Meredith) is a novice, with no more idea how to fight a battle than (say) the Archbishop. But this Henry, sweet and charming, is a bit of a fop. He was not helped in the least by the fact that all of his clothes – cloak, doublet, the lot – looked badly unironed. This at least is a detail one would expect the Loft to get right. It made things only harder. ‘He’s clever; almost as clever as you.’ I wonder. One does not expect this Henry, any more than his blustering son, to be a wet.

Meredith’s best moment is when he (momentarily) stands up to his mother scarcely a year later. The first Yorkist rebellion has collapsed but he permits the clueless (though some say well-tutored) impostor, the so-called Lambert Simnel, to be put to work in the royal kitchens. Simnel (‘the ten year old son of an Oxford joiner’) was lucky: he lived till 1525, and around 50. Henry’s best line, arguably, in response to Elizabeth’s ‘Do I frighten you?’: ‘Yes, but I am beginning to enjoy it.’ Nicely delivered.  

Later in the play, in some of the quick–fire dialogue, one was reminded of passages in Greek drama, where characters exchange comments with alternate (the so–called ‘stichomythia’, literally ‘lines in rows’), a device also found in early Shakespeare, witness Richard III and the Henry VI trilogy); and some of the banter between trysting lovers in the comedies. Here it was always effective, in a script that developed tremendous movement and emotional force.

The play rarely turns to ensemble scenes: essentially, monologue and dialogue, invariably encompassing Bessie herself, prevail. Morris’s speaking was as wonderfully clear as her moves and gestures. A vast body of text positively rolled out of her, in an interpretation that was never less than gripping. Clearly a huge talent, she served up a performance that was mesmerisingly good: as intelligent, in fact, as the character she was portraying, and scrumptiously in command of a brilliantly phrased brutal wry humour. Cruel, but never less than entertaining. .

Virtually at the close we face an encounter between the female survivors: the wife and the mother–in–law, whom Richard III–ers believe the likeliest dispatcher of the Princes in the Tower.

Moore’s Margaret is as loomingly domineering as ever. Surely she needs elbowing out of the picture. But Bessie, shrewd beyond her years, and cunning as she is beautiful, has the answer. She furnishes compliments and reconciliation. Margaret, though ever the matriarch, is non–plussed, and despite her own assertion ‘I’ve never flattered anyone in my life’ – you believe it – falls for the just that, on being offered the chance to escort the first Tudor Queen Bess at her coronation.

Of course, Elizabeth is the winner, and her opponent’s importance negligible. At least, till the younger, undoubtedly our heroine, dies. Then for a few years, ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’ was for sure the most influential woman in the land. She died two months later than her son, just after organising her grandson’s coronation. But in a sense, she did have the last laugh. To 18-11-17

Roderic Dunnett

14-11-17 

Loft

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