When Wadeson is bad, which is almost always, I forget his plays while they're playing. Some character comes on stage and I can't remember if he's the Dutch Uncle or Welsh Cousin. Turns out it barely matters since Wadeson doesn't seem quite sure himself. So the heart deflates when the Earl of Huntington walks on stage at the opening of his new one, Look About You. Yes, Huntington again. The Admiral’s seem obsessed with this mediocre figure of intermittent interest. Still, there’s a pretty good gag when he asks his groom to tie up his horse in the off stage stable with all the other horses that all the other plays keep just off the stage. Then there’s a pretty lively interchange with a hermit called “Skink,” a disguised hermit of course since hermits and friars are always something else. So far, so good, since Wadeson seems finally to have put his nose to the wind and realized that the only things that should ever happen in a play are things that can only happen in a play.
But this is followed by one of those endless court scenes where actors shove their shoulders to their ears and pretend to be Henry the Zzzzz.... Look About You’s court scene is even longer and even more boring than the stuff Shakespeare put us through in the fifteen parts of Henry VI. The play is set at the court of Henry II, and the “II” here stands for the two kings – Henry and son – who are, impossibly, both kings at once. Apparently having two kings at once means scenes about them have to be twice as long.
The court scene drags on and on until you cannot remember a time when it wasn’t happening. And just when you think things can’t get any worse Wadeson brings on a character he calls "Red Cap." (Why not call him "White Cap" and just surrender?) Red Cap has – God help us – a stammer, an idea so dumb only Wadeson could think of it. This scene has already been longer than forever and now we get a character who can't spit out his words. But then something happens and that something is everything. Redcap starts to run in place. He’s making a lot of noise but isn’t getting anywhere – like the scene itself – and it suddenly seems like Wadeson might have been let in on a joke that he’s never got before. As Redcap runs in place he stands for something else: the way that drama is always on the move but never getting anywhere. For the first time Wadeson seems to have read the play that he’s written, and to have read it while he’s writing it – the play teaching us, and itself, how to use it.
Redcap’s arrested – and arresting – running get a call back later during a game of bowls played in the Tower. No one but Wadeson would ever stage a bowling match – it’s another thing, like horses, that should be stabled offstage since the stage can’t handle too much instability. And the reason is obvious. You can’t block bowling, you can only hope to contain it. And so there’s another good gag here. The actors have to pretend to bowl, and the only thing that stops the balls, and the play, from rolling right over the edge of the stage are the rushes. It’s a joke so good – motion rubbed by rushes – that Wadeson doesn’t think to mention it. Eventually, Skink and Prince John give up on the game and the balls just sit there, another figure of arrested motion, checked volition, stored momentum, living up to the image of Redcap earlier: the play is chock full of still runs. Perhaps an even better joke than the rushes is that in a play full of held motion the prison is called the “Fleet.”
Wadeson has finally woken up to the idea that there might be some profit in going too far. He’s realized something about pace. And this realization releases something in the play, a theory of velocity that infuses everything it touches. Consider this: The play begins with two kings and one hermit, proceeds to a point where there are two kings and two hermits, and recedes before us with one king and one hermit (who used to be one of the two kings), stabilizing the surplus of kings and hermits. And so the play draws out a weird theatrical notion: in the theatrical kingdom there can only be one Hermit. And yet Look About You threatens theatrical stability by doubling down on disguises. Its dangerous wager is a second hermit costume introduced quite late in the play. Just as two kings is an untenable political situation, two hermit disguises is an unsustainable theatrical one. This is because – just as only one crown at a time should signify majesty – only one hermit disguise can signify a false hermit, who is the king of the theatrical world. So disturbing is the second hermit costume that during the play’s closing standoff of the two hermits, it never occurs to anyone that they both are false or both true. The standoff of the two hermits obviously refrains the play’s opening scene with the standoff of the two kings. But it would be a mistake to see the hermit scene merely as a parody of the two kings’ scene because the play is not as interested in the problems of kingship as it is in the problems of theatre itself.
Let me say what I think the play means: In the circuit of disguise in this play a red cap or a hermit cloak denotes a single character. This “1 costume” = “1 character” equation is, of course, purely and merely theatrical. It’s a rigid economy and the stability of theatre depends upon it. So within this sartorial system, the introduction of a duplicate disguise is a threat to the economy of meaning. The second hermit disguise is nothing less than an existential threat to theatre itself.
Fortunately, the circuit of identities in Look About You has a peculiar ground. That ground is Redcap and, more particularly, his stammer. Redcap is interesting in the following way: the stammer that makes him so easy to ape makes him unable to ape. It is not the red cap that makes Redcap easy to imitate, that is, it is his stutter. But this means that the “real” Redcap is the only person in this play incapable of mimicking anyone else. When he runs in place, or trips over his tongue, he represents the principle that the play has discovered: momentum can be incredibly stabilizing.
There will be better plays staged this year. Maybe even this month. Possibly even today. But at this moment, Look About You is moving at just the right speed to keep itself in good standing. And that’s enough.
–Paul Menzer, London, 1600