As the smell of bonfires and the sound of fireworks fill the air this week, a new play opens at the Carriageworks in Leeds with an original take on the Gunpowder Plot.
Shakespeare in Terror imagines a meeting between persecuted Catholic Guy ‘Guido’ Fawkes and the Bard of Stratford William Shakespeare and takes as its starting point an historical fact – both men were in London in the autumn of 1605 just before Parliament was due to open.
The play explores political, spiritual and emotional dilemmas, mixing surrealism with actual historical events to delve into questions that have never been fully answered, such as the identity of the mastermind behind the plot.
“I think it is just so relevant today with the ever-present threat of terrorism,” says playwright Helen Shay who has developed her idea into a full-length theatre piece from a one act play she wrote several years ago . “I have always been intrigued by this period of history and when I looked into the Gunpowder Plot, all the issues are exactly the same – it is really about tolerance. It is such a great vehicle to look at issues we have now – it is so resonant.”
A number of theories have been put forward about the Gunpowder Plot, particularly involving King James I’s chief minister Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury who hated Catholics and was fearful that James might be lenient towards them during his reign. “In the play I explore some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Plot,” says Shay. “And I have my own view on exactly what happened and how much the Government of the time knew about it.” The Gunpowder Plot actually took place during the period that Shakespeare scholars refer to as the Bard’s ‘lost years’ – after he left Stratford-upon-Avon and went to London but before he became the toast of the capital. “No-one really knows what he did” says Shay. “I put forward some unusual theories about what Shakespeare might have been up to during those ‘lost years’.” It is possible that Shakespeare was a Catholic sympathiser – it is known that both his family and his wife’s had Catholic connections. “Shakespeare’s father was quite a well-to-do local figure and he suddenly fell out of favour and lost a lot of money,” says Shay. “It is thought that it was because it became known that he was secretly a Catholic.”
Alongside Shakespeare and Guy Fawkes, there are three characters in the play – Thunder, Lightning and Rain – who are based on the witches in MacBeth. “They are not old hags,” says Shay. “They are different ages, quite glamorous and more like wise women. Rain is the genesis of Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’. I suppose in a way this play came out of my love for MacBeth – first reading it when I was 16 was a real turning point for me – and it is so steeped in references to the Gunpowder Plot. It came out soon after the events and it is so clear that Shakespeare knew a lot about it.”
The play seeks to upturn the received wisdom about Fawkes and Shakespeare to show them in a new light using dark humour. “It is above all a comedy,” says Shay. “It is very surreal. I am trying to capture the spirit of the times and to discuss issues then that relate to today including the question – can we all be tolerant of each other?”
Shakespeare in Terror, Upstairs@the Carriageworks, Leeds, November 8-9. Tickets on 0113 224 3801 or www.carriageworkstheatre.org.uk