A dying king summons his old retainers, to take stock of his kingdom and to appoint his successor. He finds, to his horror, that his motley band of servants has betrayed his trust, and squandered his bounty on fripperies. He rages, as their reverence resolves into contempt, and as sickness wracks his body. He realises, too late, that he has ta’en too little care of his kingdom; now he must hand it over to men he despises.
Summer’s Last Will and Testament, Nashe’s only (extant) single-authored play, takes on meaty issues: a succession drama, taking place in ‘time of plague’, with a mortality-haunted monarch confronting the sins that have overtaken his polity. But the king is a personified Summer, his servants representations of the hunt and the harvest, his successors a timeserving Autumn and a puritanical Winter. The drama of succession is a pageant of the changing seasons, its deaths and upheavals knowingly temporary. At the same time, Summer’s Last Will is a winningly metatheatrical comedy, continually joking with its own status as drama. Through the ‘riddling and questioning’ presence of Will Summers, the ghost of Henry VIII’s jester, the play mocks its author, its own structure, and its place within late-Elizabethan performance culture.
Nashe composed Summer’s Last Will at Archbishop Whitgift’s palace in Croydon, where it had its first performance in the Great Hall in the autumn of 1592. A recent production of the play by Edward’s Boys, co-produced by the Thomas Nashe Project brought it back to the hall of Whitgift’s palace (now an independent girls’ school), following successful performances in Stratford and at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London. Directed by deputy head Perry Mills, Edward’s Boys is made up of students at (and recent graduates from) King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon; the company has become well-known for tackling lesser-known early modern plays.
Even for this extraordinary company, however, Summer’s Last Will posed challenges. This was a play that hadn’t been staged for over 400 years – and of which there is no record of professional performance. It is made up, in large part, of long and complex speeches, often with a liberal smattering of Latin quotations. Winter speaks for, as Perry notes, twelve and a half minutes, while Will Summers (engagingly played here by Dan Power) remarks of Ver’s speech on the necessity of unthriftiness, ‘I promise you truly, I was almost asleep; I thought I had been at a sermon’. Nashe is drawing on forms familiar to his educated 1590s audiences – in particular, sermons and university disputations – which valued prolixity, repetition, and the deployment of a wide range of learned references.
Without these referents to appeal to, how might these speeches work in performance? Summer’s Last Will is not, on the page, always the sparkiest of dramas. On the page, the long, twisting speeches can rather dissolve into one another, with characterisation and plot fading into the background. The Thomas Nashe Project’s editor of the text, Bart van Es, expressed doubt about its stage-worthiness in his paper at the Thomas Nashe: Prose, Drama, and the Oral Culture of Early Modern London symposium in May 2017. Mills harnessed this in his rehearsal process, telling the project: ‘I quoted Bart’s derision in order to spur them on. The competitive element is and was, I feel, crucial to the success of the boys’ companies’.
Mills’s directorial approach centres language; as he tells the actors, ‘We must TELL THE STORY! And you can only do that if you are completely confident in what that story is. And that depends entirely on your total understanding of the words you are saying – and what everyone else is saying when you are onstage’. The actors rehearse in small groups, often individually with the director. The characterisation of Summer (Rory Gopsill) as filled with impotent rage came out of one such session, in which Mills, Gopsill, and Pascal Vogiaridis (Vertumnus) realised that Summer (like all of the characters) knows the outcome of the succession debate, and is ‘trying to defer the inevitable’. Gopsill’s performance kept the ageing king very much at the centre of the drama throughout – I found myself turning to check his reactions as other characters spoke.
As for those long speeches: Ritvik Nagar’s energetic performance as Ver made great fun of the character’s longwindedness, while George Ellingham tackled Winter’s twelve and a half minutes with assurance. Winter’s speech is an especially tricky one – it comes late in the play, and rests on Winter’s characterisation as humourless and puritanical, so the production couldn’t rely on humour to keep the audience’s attention – but Ellingham’s performance was thoroughly engaging throughout. Orion’s (Charlie Waters’s) lengthy speech on the virtues of dogs was also a highlight, not least for the controlled metatheatrical chaos with which the company portrayed his hunting hounds. It does feel, as Mathew Lyons wrote in the TLS, ‘a little invidious to single out individuals from an amateur, if superb, young ensemble’, not least because the cohesion of the company – and the sense that they, as well as the audience, were having a great time – was one of the great joys of the production.
The decision to stage the play along the length of the hall, with the audience in lines on either side, facilitated its winking metatheatricality, although at times it made lines a bit difficult to hear. However, it came into its own with the performance of Nashe’s most famous lyric, ‘Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss’, in a gorgeous choral version composed by K.E.S. graduates Sam Bridges and Joe Woodman. The company surrounded the audience, holding lamps, the effect moving and rather magical. King Edward’s Boys proved that Summer’s Last Will can be engaging, funny, and poignant; that there’s still a place for Nashe’s work on the stage as well as the page.
Kirsty Rolfe, Sussex University