A ‘Comoedie called the Northerne Lasse by master Broome’ was first entered into the Stationer’s Register on March 24, 1632, and that same year it was acted by The King’s Men at both The Globe and Blackfriars theatres; one of the earlier plays of Richard Brome, and, arguably, the one that sealed his reputation as a playwright. By 1738, The Northern Lass was out of fashion as a fully staged production, and didn’t get another airing until Shakespeare’s Globe presented it as a ‘Read Not Dead’ rehearsed reading in 2008.
It has seeped into modern consciousness a few times since, and this week, directed by Tom Straszewski and Josefina Venegas Meza, it received what I suspect may have been its first Zoom rehearsed reading, involving actors from across the UK. It was an ambitious and challenging experiment as so much of Brome’s text needs to be supplemented by specific visual action to bring it to life, but Straszewski, Meza and their team have done a wonderful job, and hopefully brought the work of this Caroline era playwright to the attention of a wider audience.
Brome’s dramaturgy employs a characteristic social investigation that is identified by a number of key theatrical tropes; an interest in presenting the wealthy and not-so-wealthy in direct proximity and engagement with each other; examples of playful and open extemporisation; a detailed examination of the mental and emotional states of the servants who often provide revelations pertinent to plot development; an irreverence towards authority; an inclination to portray the inner freedom and sexual nature of women with a certain relish; a sophisticated manipulation of metatheatrical devices, through which role-play, re-enactments and asides to the audience abound, inviting both the characters and the audience to shed their inhibitions and see both the world and theatre from a fresh perspective.
Brome’s writing in The Northern Lass also has a fluidity that lends itself to music – indeed, Daniel Purcell composed a musical score to accompany a 1706 production of the play – but Straszewski and Meza have made the directorial choice to use spoken word, concentrating instead on engaging with the fidelity of the text, exploring Original Pronunciation, and international and regional dialects in early modern theatre.
Sir Philip Luckless, played by Sara Mussad, is a gentleman who devotes his life to the satisfaction of his own wishes. His knighthood is a bought one, obtained to help him gain the affections of the rich widow, Mistress Audrey Fitchow (Gill Yue), much to the protestations of his friend, Master Triedwell (Juné Tiamatakorn), who insists that the lady is too old and too domineering to make the match a good one. Sir Luckless will have none of it, though he does have misgivings when he encounters her opportunistic and foolish brother, Master Wigeon (Phoebe Clements), who also happens to be seeking a rich wife, and his equally foolish and boastful tutor, Anvil (Colin Hurley).
The arrival of a stranger, the sharp tongued Mistress Trainwell (Joy Warner), who is paired with Beavis (Paul French), adds to Luckless’ consternation, by saying that he is already in a marriage contract with her ward ‘Constance’. The only Constance that Luckless can think of is Constance Holdup (Claire Morley), a prostitute he had an affair with, and assuming Mistress Trainwell is her agent, hastily gets rid of her, perceiving he is being blackmailed. He tells Mistress Fitchow they must be wed immediately. Whist getting ready, Mistress Fitchow tells her brother, Master Wigeon, that she intends to marry him to a northern lass called Constance (also played by Claire Morley), niece of wealthy, lascivious and full of blunder, Sir Paul Squelch (James Swanton). Master Wigeon has never heard of the girl, but if she’s set to inherit, then he’s satisfied with the match.
Constance herself is in love with Luckless from their first meeting; Triedwell finds himself head over heels with Mistress Fitchow; Constance Holdup (for the purposes of distinction now called Camitha), was mistress to Sir Squelch, but finds herself marrying Master Wigeon (who was, of course, going to marry the other ‘northern’ Constance). Amongst all this, Anvil, who considers himself an expert in the vices of all young gentlemen, has been held prisoner in a wardrobe for making unwanted advances to Mistress Trainwell, egged on by Luckless’ servant, Pate (Ella Plevin), who has disguised himself as both a doctor and a minister along the way.
Confusions, disguises and hoaxes continue to pile on top of one another, in a bordering-on-farce that uses ridiculous situations and practical jokes to twist a plot that appears impossibly complicated. To complete the character list, add in Master Apprehension Bullfinch (Tom Straszewski), Master Salamon Nonsense (Tony Froud), Humphrey Howdee (Oliver Woodgate), Vexhem (Bill Laverick), and the Clerk and Flaps ( Josefina Venegas Meza). The action moves at a frenetic pace, the misunderstandings tumble over each other and James Swanson becomes a most beguiling Senora; it’s all a joy to watch, and must have been great fun to put together.
It's rare to see theatre from the Caroline era performed today; it was a real privilege to see this rehearsed reading, especially under the confines of Zoom conventions, and all the cast and creatives can be very proud of what they have achieved.
The Northern Lass was performed as part of
York International Shakespeare Festival 2021.
The full programme can be seen here.
August 20, 2021 - The full recording of this reading of The Northern Lass is now available on the YorkShakes Vimeo site.
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