A Yorkshire Tragedy: A Murderous Bloodbath In 50 Minutes

a yorkshire tragedy by thomas middleton

This week Vile Passéist Theatre is bringing a rare Early Modern One Act, Thomas Middleton’s A Yorkshire Tragedy, to the Bus Stop Theatre. In just fifty minutes, Middleton brings us a story of debt, shame, murder and regret that would have taken his contemporaries at least three hours to tell. The result is a fast-paced blood bath with some mesmerizing performances and directed beautifully in the round by Dorian Lang.

Middleton’s play was borrowed from the true crime headlines of its time, based on an aristocrat, Walter Calverley in Yorkshire, who married a woman he was not in love with and not of his choosing and adopted a lifestyle of drinking and gambling that led to his eventual bankruptcy. As in the play, Calverley ended up killing two of his young children, preferring to see them dead than shamed and reduced to beggars and thieves.

Middleton’s dramatization does explore the state of mind of the Husband prior to committing these hasty atrocities and we are presented with a very complex familial dynamic on the brink of financial disaster. The  oppressive 17th Century gender roles further alienate the husband from his wife and render it impossible for her to be able to offer him any help without further shaming and emasculating him, despite her best intentions. The children are referred to as brats and bastards, which raises the question of their legitimacy and her faithfulness. The stakes in this piece are massively high and the complexities that Middleton alludes to as he builds toward the murders are filled with both humanity and tragedy. It is difficult, however, to develop a deep sense of empathy or connection with the characters or to delve too deeply into the subtext because the pacing is so rapid and the playwright keeps hurtling steadfastly toward the end. This leaves the last scene, the one of repentance and forgiveness, seeming a bit contrived, because emotionally these characters haven’t been given the time to get there yet.

Despite these challenges, Scott R. Mealey gives a riveting performance as the Husband. He has this dark intensity in the depths of his voice that chillingly leaves no option for his character but the choices he makes. His grasp of Middleton’s language is incredibly clear, so much so that the realism of the Husband’s emotions rises entirely above dated speeches and the occasional clunky poetic line, as should always be the case when performing historical works. This performance has made me want to see Mealey play Iago and Macbeth, he makes a sinister and delightful villain and I’m sure he would thrive even more ardently if he were given the tortured depths Shakespeare crafts so well to sink his teeth into.

Sarah Vanasse is an excellent compliment to Mealey as the devastated and ravaged Wife. She roots her performance in the confusion of how cold her husband is to her and her resolve to do everything in her power to turn her dysfunctional situation into one of love and prosperity for her children. Vanasse also does not allow difficult language to bog her performance down and she finds her character’s humanity in every nook and cranny of the piece. Michael Gaty, as the 3rd Gentleman, brings a lovely commanding presence to his scenes and his chemistry with Mealey’s Husband is filled with a haughty disdain that made their relationship feel very personal and volatile, which made it captivating to watch. Fifth grader Aidan Mealey plays the oldest son and has a strong handle on the language and a terrific gruesome death scene.

The fight choreography by Dave Rossetti is filled with power, viciousness and energy and works well with Lang’s theatre space in the round. Lang keeps the theatre dark, illuminated mostly by footlights, which brings a ghostly and menacing ambiance to the evening. The actors are onstage for the duration of the piece, but come into focus in the center of the playing space and I was especially impressed with how Lang has staged the important action in the piece with such fluid movement that, although the audience is all around, it never seems like we are missing anything.

A Yorkshire Tragedy is a fascinating and unusual piece of theatre history presented in a way that feels quite sleek and modern and boasts of some terrific performances from actors quite new on the scene that I certainly hope to see much more from in the future.

Vile Passéist Theatre’s production of Thomas Middleton’s A Yorkshire Tragedy plays until June 24th at the Bus Stop Theatre in Halifax (2203 Gottingen Street). Shows run nightly at 8:00pm, with a 2pm matinee on Sunday June 24th. Tickets are $20.00 ($15 for Arts Workers & Seniors). For more information please visit this website. To book your tickets please phone 902.406.6262 or email vilepasseist@gmail.com.  

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