Friday, February 22, 2013

Stephen McDermott, Conor Madden and Rob McDermott discuss new play about Christopher Marlowe's demise, 'The Secret Art of Murder'

"Hell hath no limits", writes Christopher Marlowe, "for where we are is hell/And where hell is there must we ever be".

Lines like this must have shot up hairs on the back of necks of audiences for whom, living in the Elizabethan era, God and the teachings of the bible were instilled as definitive truths. His antagonist Mephistopheles goes on to describe God as a "wretched" finding comfort in "companions in misery" (and in latin, to boot).

Marlowe's untimely death - reportedly, a stabbing through the eye in a tavern brawl - came only ten days after an arrest warrant issued by the Privy Council, assumingly on grounds of heresy. Speculation over his murder grew with the revelation of a letter by the Council sent to his university insisting that he receive his Masters degree for he was "working on matters touching the benefit of his country". Was Christopher Marlowe a spy?

This world of Elizabethan espionage has attracted playwright Stephen McDermott, whose new play, The Secret Art of Murder, is not a recreation of the dramatist's death but of the investigation into his death that has haunted the literary consciousness for centuries.

"We'll never know how good he could have been", says Stephen, "and you can't ignore the influence of something like Doctor Faustus or The Jew of Malta. They're not as polished as Shakespeare but they're great stories! As a playwright, he's not as polished as Shakespeare but as a character he's far more interesting". Marlowe was the innovator of writing in blank verse - a style that Shakespeare would later champion.

A 'work-in-progress' showing of the play features as part of the 'Collaborations' festival facilitated by theatre company The Jack Burdell Experience in Smock Alley Theatre.

The play stars McDermott's brother Rob (of The Company fame), who plays a film noir investigator consumed by his search for absolute truth. He elaborates on the artistic decision to present the play in the film noir style: "as opposed to the 'whodunnit', where the narrator isn't really questioned, it focuses on the investigator and questions his psychology".

The play is written in Stephen's own blank verse, and it was the delivery of verse that drew the company to actor Conor Madden to direct, who performed verse in Pan Pan's The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane, Second Age's Hamlet, and his solo piece U R Hamlet.

"I think the play offers the chance to see something really unique", says Madden. "Stephen has written the play completely in verse and you don't see a lot of modern verse. And despite the modern parlance the application of the rules that you need to speak the verse have not changed".

Hopefully this emulation of Marlowe's verse and noir investigation into his death will bring us to him in a way which we've never been before. Or else Marlowe himself will continue laughing at our attempts to demystify his life from whatever hell dimension he frequents nowadays. I doubt he's in a bad place, though. As he says in Faustus: "Hell is just a frame of mind".

The 'work-in-progress' showing of 'The Secret Art of Murder' runs March 6th and 8th at 7.30pm, and March 9th at 6pm at Smock Alley Theatre.  

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