January 20, 2003: Fletcher, The Island Princess

Gielgud. Royal Shakespeare Company season

Something of a revelation, this play. I knew nothing of it other than the fact that I saw the title in the table of contents of one of my old anthologies of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. I can see one reason why the RSC decided to included it in the Swan season last year: what starts out as a romantic comedy about various Portuguese soldiers vying for the hand of an Indonesian princess turns serious when the action leads to a clash of religions, the Christianity of the Portuguese in conflict with — whatever the polytheistic religion is of the Indon­esians. For good measure, there is a self-serving Indonesian character who disguises himself in order to advise the pacifist, tolerant Prince (brother of the island princess) to become absolute about matters religious and whose disguise, with its loosely wrapped turban and long, wispy beard, makes him look not a little like Osama bin Laden. He is exposed at the end, the Prince calls for univer­sal love and tolerance, and they all go off, leaving a spotlight on the kneeling figure of the false guru, looking down at his chained hands.

Well, we are seasoned audiences and quite used to drawing contemporary analogies from the seemingly safely distant and exotic action and characters of a play whose day seems to have passed. This play is very well produced, including a very impressive gamelan band, whose music adapts itself to all occasions, heroic, romantic, comic, or foreboding. And it is, as expected, strongly cast and evenly balanced. This stuff is hard to get right and do well with, but the RSC players do just that. They are an enthusiastic, exuberant troupe, and they give it their all. They speak to be heard clearly by the entire house (some seats of which in the stalls were empty, and there was no audience at all in the grand circle — or whatever the third level is called).

What brings the play into focus, toward the end, and suddenly makes us sit up and pay attention, is the scene in which the Princess, as a final condition of marriage with the brave Armusia, the recently arrived Portuguese who has taken her and her love away from the pusillanimous Captain, Ruy Dias, insists that Armusia convert to her religion. It hits him like a bolt out of the blue. He is out­raged, and he rants and raves, declaring himself ready to die before giving up adoring the God who made the sky and stars and sea and who inspires honor in every good man’s heart, etc., etc. He is observed in his tirade by the Prince and the false guru, who says, effectively, “I told you so” and urges that Armusia be captured and killed. To make a more complex story simple, the Princess, who has been won over by Armusia’s enthusiasm for his faith, says she will turn Christ­ian, and if they are going to kill Armusia they will have to kill her too. General consternation: the unlikely crisis of a play that only a few minutes back looked like a light-weight romantic comedy with a goodly admixture of erotic interest has suddenly arrived; two cultures, each firm in its belief of the absolute truthful­ness of its religion, are ready to fight to the death. Where have we seen this before?

But we are in the presence of John Fletcher, that master of the ambiguous plot that might go in one way or another. Tragicomedy and comedy are equally his forte, and even in the latter he loves to tease his audience into worrying whether all may not come out well in the end. But the Fletcherian outcome — whichever it may be — has, as is usually the case, been expertly provided for by the presence of a character strong enough to tip the scales. Here that character is, of course, the King (not the Prince, as a check of the cast list corrects me to say), who has learned wisdom, tolerance, and resignation as a prisoner of the neighboring island. In fact, it is his liberation that the Princess calls for as the heroic deed that will identify the successful suitor for her hand. It is Armusia who, of course, succeeds in that liberation, and it’s typical of Fletcher’s turn-about plotting that Armusia is for a while at great risk of his life. In another true Fletcherian turn, the King forsakes the false advice of the Governor of Ternata, the Osama look-alike, in favor of a general amnesty, in which happiness is the just desert of all, Portu­guese and Indonesians alike. Even the false guru is left alone, it seems, though what remains is the final, nice ambiguity of the chains that still bind him, as the lights go down.

Would that the world’s considerable ills were as easy to cure.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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