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Read Not Dead - Shakespeare's Contemporaries Reborn

20/05/2014 13:30 BST | Updated 20/07/2014 10:59 BST

At least once in their life, everyone asks 'What's the purpose of my work?'

Not to generalize at all - of course - but writers, specifically, ask 'Will these words last?'

'What difference do they make?'

'How will it last the ages?'

'Is it true?'

That isn't anything like a real discussion writers would have.

We mostly fight.

With cane-swords and squirrels - then maybe when we're done making up how we'd fight, we fight.

With fists.

Hopefully, that last question is the one that most writers keep in their minds above all. We hope that if we make it true and we make it well, it will chime a chord with people enough to do the rest.

These are the questions asked by all writers and, I bet, moreso by Shakespeare's contemporaries. 'How will it last the ages?'

Well, I can answer that question for you Mr Nathan Field [1587 - 1620]: it lasts very well and with great vigour. So long as we're talking about your play Amends For Ladies that was performed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Sunday, May 18th.

Amends For Ladies was performed as part of the Read Not Dead series. A series of staged readings run by the Education Department of The Globe where director and actors are given a play on the morning of performance and fly through to perform later with scripts in hand. All the plays are those that have fallen by the wayside from the years 1567 - 1642. Let's hope there's a future service like that for all of our work too.

As an actor and playwright, I had my suspicions when I was told about it - how could the work be good when professional actors are on a professional stage with scripts in hand? What I hadn't counted on was the quality of the actors, the quality of the writing, and the warmth of the audience. Notice I didn't use 'generosity of the audience' because generosity isn't necessary. The endeavour is open, honest, and fun from the start.

May 18th saw the new season kick off and kick off it did - The Roarers almost fell into the audience in a fight scene. The woman sat in front of me had ample opportunity to grab some cheek from Che Walker. Walker was one of the weaker actors in his reading but gave it a good go; the outstanding members of the cast were Beth Park, John Hopkins [especially when alone with Joannah Tincey], Oliver Senton, and Nicholas Rowe. All the other actors involved were good but these shone for their characterizations, their quick thinking when faced with the problems of a staged reading, and for their comedy. Speaking with the actors after, I was told they all do it for the love of the game and that feeling shines in their performances - it's clear all of the actors are there because they want to be and because they love the challenge and the discovery of working with these rediscovered texts.

The play itself is primarily a progressive look at the 'battle of the sexes' but one with a class conscience. I hate the term 'battle of the sexes' but here it's the most fitting as Field pits them against each other in ways that would have made Donne smile. Beginning with expounding on the wonders of marriage, it then explores the lives of the three central women [Lady Honour, a maid; Lady Perfect, a wife; and Lady Bright, a widow] and the things that men do - crossdressing and comedy aplenty follow. In one of his own character's lines, Field puts forward what he's doing to the ideas around relationship roles, 'I set the hare's head to the goose's giblets.' The biggest problems it suffers is the lack of freedom for the women in the ending but it still shines in wit and timing. It is certainly more interesting than The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Speaking with the head of the Education Department, I was told an excellent anecdote about how two - now well known - actors were looking at a text when the series started in 1995 and saying 'This play is bl**dy awful, bl**dy impenetrable. No one will like it and we'll be booed off stage'. Of course, they weren't and everyone enjoyed it. At which point they were later heard saying 'A marvellous play, absolutely genius.'

That anecdote is fitting to both the form of Read Not Dead and to Field's Amends for Ladies. At first you'd think it a bad idea - impenetrable or unthinkable even - but as soon as you see it, you like it.