“In the end, who knows what is true?”
Nuffield’s commissioning of new writing that is connected to the area has long been impressive (I still remember The Saints most fondly) and continues with Nick Dear’s new play Dedication – Shakespeare and Southampton, their contribution to the Shakespeare400 celebrations. The Southampton here though is Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, rather than the place and the subject of the play, a dramatised fantasia on what lengths to which their relationship might have entailed.
All we know for sure is that Shakespeare dedicated two narrative poems to him – Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece – and from these slim pickings, Dear imagines three competing, but not necessarily contradictory scenarios which are played out simultaneously. The patron in pursuit of artistic excellence or personal fame, the playwright seduced by the prospect of a bulging purse or simply the bulge in his pants. a pair of contemporaries locked together in swordplay or gay lovers dancing a pavane (great movement work from Siân Williams).
Using the framing device of a trial for high treason (Wriothesley was charged with, and found guilty of, plotting against Elizabeth I) and thus called to explain his relationship to the man, Dear – through Shakespeare – is able to explore this idea of the mutability of history, how it changes according to the stories we want to tell or indeed we want to hide – one of the Wriothesleys is a cross-dressing aesthete and not a one of the timelines isn’t dripping with charged homoeroticism (when they’re not outright doing it, that is).
Over its not-quite-90-minutes, Dedication also emerges as a fascinating study both of what it means to be a patron of the arts and what it means to accept patronage, the range of impacts on both sides of the coin. and director Samuel Hodges is clearly alive to that. It is also determined to unshackle the story from the past – “it’s not a history play” – and the production is slightly less-sure-footed here. The Nuffield has been converted into the round and Alex Lowde’s shinily black contraption of spinning frames outlined in neon distracts as much as it demarcates the different worlds of the play.
Thus it feels like Tom McKay and Tom Rhys Harries are having to battle the set at times but when things are running smoothly, both give powerful performances. McKay’s Shakespeare all personality and pragmatism, Rhys Harries’ fluctuating Wriothesley convincing in all three iterations, the fluidity of sexual identity brilliantly essayed by both, especially in the tender, unspoken moments of the final montage.