Shakespeare's Globe at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
We know precious little about the life of Thomas Tallis, the composer of [mostly] sacred music who managed to carry on working through the religious tumult of the Tudor court, serving monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I.
Which gives Jessica Swale a clean slate. On it she sketches a series of vignettes, mixing history, legend and invention in a gallop through the five decades of his working life.
So we see Henry poison a celebrated Italian castrato [William Purefoy]; the sacking of Waltham Abbey – last monastery to fall; Mrs Prest the fanatical anti-Papist; Dr Dee foretelling the reign of Elizabeth. And much else besides, all in little more than 90 minutes, including the interval.
There are many strong scenes – the fugitive priest peddling trinkets and begging for sanctuary, Tallis himself desperately drawing inspiration from birdsong. But the tone is sometimes unsure, with beautifully poetical passages brought low by pedestrian prose - “kneel down” - “stand up”. The theology and the musicology are simplistic and often anachronistic. And while there's no denying the power of the riot gear and the machine guns, Wolf Hall, or nearer to home Anne Boleyn, demonstrate that the deadly power politics of the time need no contemporary dressing up for their impact to be understood. And even the Globe's normal care of the text occasionally seems lacking – “Dante” and “prophesied” both casualties.
But three things make Adele Thomas's production at least a qualified hit. The quality of the four actors, who between them play all the parts. Brendan O'Hea as Tallis [and Dee], wonderfully compelling from his magical opening soliloquy on, Susie Trayling as all the women, Simon Harrison as Henry, the plasterer restoring the saints to glory and the fugitive priest. And Guy Amos confidently chilling as the rabidly puritan Edward VI.
The music which runs through the piece, superbly interpreted by members of The Sixteen.
And the incense-drenched candlelit chiaroscuro of the Playhouse itself, for which this is the first piece to be specially written.
As Laura Battle points out in the FT, it's not a piece that's likely to transfer, although I did think that it would work very well on the radio …
production photograph: Marc Brenner