“Equivocation is based on an historical event. It is, in fact, the founding event of modern England. The 5th of November is celebrated with national fireworks and is roughly the equivalent to America’s 4th of July.
The story has been told for over 400 years and the government’s version of the story has become a national myth. The only thing we know with certainty about the event itself is that it could not possibly have occurred in the way the government claimed.
What follows offers a plausible alternative……………..Bill Cain
The event to which playwright Bill Cain refers in describing his 2009 play Equivocation is “The Gunpowder Plot”; the 1605 plot by Catholic conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill King James I and his family, along with the entire House of Lords. The plot was unsuccessful.
The title is a reference to the A Treatise of Equivocation written in 1595 by Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit who was executed for his knowledge of the plot. Arizona’s Southwest Shakespeare Company has mounted a terrific production of Equivocation and seeing it is a wonderful night in the theater.
Sir Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury and a close advisor to King James I, commissions William Shakespeare (called Shagspeare in the play), somewhat against the playwright’s will, to write a play to reveal the truth about the recent Gunpowder Plot. ‘Truth’, in this case, is to be based on the account of events written by the King, himself. As Shagspeare, along with his acting company, struggles to turn the highly skewed summary of a failed assassination attempt into a drama for the stage, he discovers an alternative version of the facts that he feels may be more truthful. How can he tell his truth when it is not the same as the King’s? The finished play turns out to be something other than what was expected.
Cain’s play is a comedy, and a funny one. The language is contemporary. The costumes are a mash-up of contemporary and Jacobean clothing. The only character who affects an accent is King James whose Scottish brogue effectively sets him apart as a foreigner. The set is simple and non-specific as to period. The production employs a lot of old-school stagecraft. The performances are top-notch in every role. These elements combine to create a play that is both interesting and entirely accessible.
As a play, Equivocation is nothing if not ambitious. It is part backstage comedy, part historical drama, and part exploration of the character’s existential crisis. It is an indictment of the abuse of power by the State, an exploration of man’s belief in the promise of the afterlife and cost of what we may miss in this life by focusing so single-mindedly on the next. It looks at the troubled relationship of a father and daughter and the dangers of propaganda and State control of the arts.
At its core the play is about the meaning of truth. Is it, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder and, therefore, subjective? Is it merely the absence of falsehood? Garnet’s treatise is a how-to manual on equivocation; the art of saying something that isn’t a falsehood but creates a false understanding in the mind of the listener; of answering the question not asked rather than the one that was in an effort to serve a greater good.
My one criticism of this play is that it seems to be about so many things that it can’t do them justice. At times it seems to be more superficial than the subject matter deserves. It says a little about a lot of different things; but it says it all very well.
Cain wrote Equivocation for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where it was performed in 2009. It was produced in both San Francisco and by the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City in 2010. It was produced at The Victory Garden Theatre in Chicago in 2012 and now in Phoenix in 2014. What intrigues me about that chronology is that the play has not been published yet. Photocopied manuscripts are available from Dramatist’s Play Service.