Gabriel at The Globe
Helen Wallace is left baffled by a hotchpotch of a production at Shakespeare's Globe
We’re in the 1690s. The Duke of Gloucester suffers from hydrocephalus. Cue Purcell’s ‘Birthday Ode’. A waterman has cuckolded another. Cue farty sound from trumpet. King Charles II cured a lump on this man’s neck. A drunken trumpeter is left naked in Holland. Cue chorus from Purcell's Fairy Queen. Someone’s baby was stillborn (do we care?) They’re training a starling to speak (keep up). Three trumpeters argue (about what?). Spurious cunnilingus. Purcell is dying. Queen Mary is dead – cue Funeral Music.
There were moments when I thought I’d woken up in a nightmarish episode of Horrible Histories. But it wasn’t good enough for that. And when countertenor William Purefoy gave a gleaming duet on ‘Sound the Trumpet’ with Alison Balsom, accompanied by the spirited English Concert, you could almost forget this was meant to be a ‘play’ at all – until actress and singer Jessie Buckley sang a grindingly flat rendition of ‘The Plaint’ from Purcell's The Fairy Queen.
How on earth did this ‘entertainment with trumpet’ come into being? Alison Balsom approached director Dominic Dromgoole saying she wanted to play at the Globe. Purcell’s ravishing late music for trumpet, and the royally-employed Shore brothers (official trumpeters to Queen Mary) for whom he wrote, became a focus. So far, so promising. One could imagine conflicts between royalty, impresario, composer and musicians ripe for dramatisation. Then playwright Samuel Adamson was asked to conjure a play and, being au fait with late-17th-century fashions, opted to pen a ‘masque’ even though he admits in the programme that ‘unfortunately, semi-operas don’t stand up dramaturgically’. Quite. So, hey presto! a rag-bag of sketches and non-sequiturs.
The best aspect of the evening was, inevitably, Purcell’s music and the refined yet resplendent trumpet playing of Alison Balsom, Mark Bennett and Adrian Woodward alongside game members of The English Concert. The worst was the empty trotting out of all the vibrant tropes of a Globe performance. There were random borrowings from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, comic engagement with the groundlings not through developed characters but a puppet bird poo-ing on someone’s head. Superb live music and dance, a willing audience, a cast acting their socks off – but no drama to give it meaning. Wasn’t it the Bard himself who said, ‘The play’s the thing…’?
Gabriel runs until 18 August. For more information, visit The Globe's website.