Reluctant playwright and sleuth “Shag”—aka William Shakespeare—finds himself at the perilous crossroads between artistic integrity and survival when King James I commissions him to rewrite the history of England’s infamous Gunpowder Plot. Under the Orwellian gaze of a security state not far removed from today’s headlines, he must find a way to tell the truth without selling his soul. "Equivocation" is “like nothing you’ve seen before.” (Broadway World)
This show contains some instances of profanity.
Playwright Bill Cain really gave the world a gift with Equivocation, a play about the chimerical nature of truth and the cyclical way that art imitates life imitates art. The play grapples with the ethical issues of terrorism and torture and propaganda versus art, while drawing us into that examination with visceral, heartfelt threads of humanity. We see a father and daughter struggling to connect as they cope with grief. We delight in the fierce friendship and loyalty among the actors in Shag’s company of players, and we thrill at the passion and skill of the players, both in the King’s Men within the play and our modern-day players performing Equivocation, who will have given their all to tell the story before the performance is done.
As Shag’s journey leads him to ultimately transcend the dilemma of “lie or die,” we learn alongside him what it means to equivocate, discerning the question beneath the question to answer what is really being asked and answering it with your life. Equivocation as a concept is about occupying multiple spaces or truths at once, which is so similar to what Shakespeare’s theater was all about. Originally, Shakespearean performances were in full daylight on a mostly bare stage. Men played women. Shakespeare clearly believed theater was make-believe and required some imagination on the audience member’s part. Yet the fictional world of the plays was also very real. Scholars talk about the ways Shakespeare’s theater is both imaginary and real, occupying both spaces. Perhaps Shakespeare was so good at equivocating because the theatrical conventions of his time paved the way for liminal thinking, encouraging audiences to consider how more than one version of truth can exist, depending on one’s point of view.
When I first read Equivocation, I knew I wanted to share it with CSF’s audience. This play is such a rich reflection of how we, as theater artists, try to serve the story of each play. We work intensively to read between the lines of each script to activate our performances with depth and nuance, and we endeavor to fight for what each character wants as though our lives depend on it. Shakespeare wrote so many stories and characters worth fighting for.
Bill Cain’s celebration of theater, of Shakespeare and of his endearing company of players sets modern themes in a historical context, asking us to consider how history repeats itself and whether we will choose to, as Father Henry Garnet says in the play, “add to the long slow massacre that is becoming our history.” By asking the question, Cain reminds us that we have a choice.
- Wendy Franz, Director
The King’s minister Robert Cecil approaches playwright Shagspeare (Shag) with a lucrative commission: write the True History of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Shag’s company (Richard, Armin, Nate, Sharpe, and Shag’s daughter Judith) quickly realize the inconsistencies in the official version, and Shag’s attempts to find the truth pull them into political intrigue. Cecil arrives at the Globe, implies he has spies inside the theatre and threatens dire consequences if the story isn’t told exactly as he dictated.
Father Henry Garnet is captured and put on trial, making fools of the government’s prosecutors with his honesty and intelligence. Shag convinces King James to let him see Garnet in prison, where Shag asks for a lesson in how to equivocate—that is, how to tell the truth about the Plot without earning Cecil’s wrath (and a noose). Garnet tells Shag there is no honest answer to a dishonest question; he must look beneath the stated question to what is really being asked. And if Shag wants to see his dead son again, he should look to his living daughter.
Back at the Globe, the company is nearly torn apart by the danger Shag has placed them in and by the suspicion that one of them may be Cecil’s spy. News of Garnet’s confession arrives, destroying Shag’s faith in the priest’s integrity. Disillusioned, he agrees to let the company perform the darkest play he’s ever written. They begin rehearsing Macbeth.
Shag sees Garnet one more time. He realizes Cecil planted the rumor of Garnet’s confession to manipulate him and likely engineered the Plot for political gain. Macbeth, now revealed to be the story of Cecil’s manipulations, is performed for a delighted James and furious Cecil. After Garnet’s execution, Shag looks to his daughter and sees her for perhaps the first time, and his son again in her, and spends the remainder of his career writing stories of fathers finding redemption in their daughters.
-Heidi Schmidt, Dramaturg
Equivocation is a history play. It’s fiction, of course—excellently researched, but fiction nonetheless. So it’s not a true history … right? The truth is that all history contains an element of fiction. A historian must choose which documents are valid, whose stories are most important and which details best tell the story of What Really Happened. This was especially true in early modern England, when Shakespeare (a playwright, not a historian) was writing his own history plays, and when myth, legend, fact and fiction all fell under the category “history” (emphasis on “story”). Our obsession with factual history is a modern invention barely conceived of in Shakespeare’s day.
With that in mind, here’s what we think we know about the Gunpowder Plot.
When James I ascended the English throne in 1603, English Catholics hoped their adherence to the “old faith” would be tolerated more kindly by the new regime. This was not the case, and a handful of these “papists” conspired to take action against James by planting 36 barrels of gunpowder underneath Parliament, intending to kill the king and most of the government. If successful, the Plot would have been catastrophic. The gunpowder, however, was discovered in the wee hours of Nov. 5, 1605, guarded by Guy Fawkes. The other conspirators were hunted down and killed on the spot or arrested for trial, likely torture and eventual execution.
Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and the king’s chief minister, was convinced there must be a mastermind of higher rank than those already apprehended. He set his sights on Father Henry Garnet, superior (leader) of the Jesuits in England. Garnet (executed for his role in the Plot) had authored a text found among the conspirators’ possessions. A Treatise of Equivocation instructed Catholics how to misinform authorities without risking hell for actually lying. The ensuing public debate about the practice of equivocation is one of the primary factors scholars use to date the play Macbeth, which contains several references to equivocation.
This history is strung together from letters, official documents and confessions—all of which can be doubted under the right circumstances. Do we really know what happened behind the most spectacular failed treason in English history? No. It’s not possible to accurately represent a single history of What Really Happened. History is plural. It encompasses multiple interpretations and points of view. Equivocation, then, is one history of the Gunpowder Plot—a story of What Might Have Happened.
-Heidi Schmidt, Dramaturg
Scenic Designer, Lighting Designer
Stephen C. Jones^