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Charlie Dupré’s Compositor E at Omnibus Theatre

Focusing on the teenage John Leason (Tré Medley), apprenticed by his uncle to William Jaggard (c. 1568-1623), or rather his son Isaac (Kaffe Keating), with the elder Jaggard in declining health, this is a story about printing and publishing. John wonders if they are not the same thing: Isaac almost snaps back that they are not, though there’s no attempt to explain the difference (it’s easily Googleable, as I discovered after the show, if you really want to know the details). Not very much at all is explained by Isaac, in the typically brusque manner that a manager in a high-pressured environment back in the day deploys, either because they like to, or (more likely) because they are a byproduct of their era and don’t know any better.

David Monteith (Richard Bardolph) - Credit Dan Tsantillis
David Monteith (Richard Bardolph) – Credit Dan Tsantillis.

Richard Bardolph (David Monteith) is at his workstation, the experienced worker, faithful to the printing (and publishing) company over the years but rather predictably there’s animosity towards Isaac, who he doesn’t consider a worthy heir to the Jaggard business. Eventually, he has his reasons for leaving Isaac’s employment, as does John, but even more predictably Isaac manages to persuade one, and then the other, to complete the First Folio.

There’s an obsession with ‘leaving a mark’ and placing one’s fingerprints on world history, which sounds rather absurd until it becomes clear who has placed orders for the First Folio, at least as this production would have it. There are better stage versions of how the First Folio came about – I quite like Lauren Gunderson’s play The Book of Will, which introduces audiences to John Heminges and Henry Condell, fellow actors of the Bard himself, and gives some background to how the Jaggards are perceived by others. Here, it’s all rather introspective, and one might be forgiven for coming away from the show thinking the ‘compositors’ (that is, typesetters) should be the only people who ought to be credited for Shakespeare’s complete works being printed.

I don’t think so much compositing (if that’s the correct term) needed to be re-enacted. The audience sits, watching John set, say, a portion of Macbeth, one letter at a time: interestingly, as I read later, the type for the whole sheet has to be held together tightly enough, otherwise the letters would probably fall out as soon as pressure is applied to it in order to get it printed. This is the thing with this production, and it may well be a deliberate artistic choice, but I found myself looking things up and finding out a bit more about things that weren’t explored enough or at all in the show. As I say, this might be precisely what the creative team intended – let the audience go away and add as little or as much as they want on the bare bones the show provides – but it makes for a frustrating evening at the theatre rather than a fulfilling one.

Of some interest, and somewhat underwritten, is a subplot about John’s childhood trauma, still unresolved. As far as I could deduce, there were parallels between his past and what happens in the portion of Shakespeare he’s busy compositing. This in turn clouds his judgement at work. There’s a whiff in the closing moments of Cassius’ remark in Act III Scene I of Julius Caesar: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown”. But there was a bit too much description and not enough drama, and the video projections didn’t add much to proceedings. A hardworking cast do well with what they are given but they, like the audience, aren’t given much.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

There’s power in that fingerprint of yours. Make sure to use it wisely.

London 1623. Apprentice typesetter, 17-year-old John arrives to work under the mentorship of ambitious printer Isaac Jaggard on a potentially game-changing new commission – Shakespeare’s first-ever complete works.

As John grapples to stamp a manuscript of ‘Macbeth’ onto the page, fuelled by his dark past, he finds himself weaving his own narrative into the text. But as the ink sets, he begins questioning who the storytellers really are…

Presented in line with the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, Compositor E celebrates the power of words and explores the many unlikely fingerprints that write and re-write history.

Published by Methuen Drama and long listed for the prestigious Bruntwood Prize.

Omnibus Theatre Presents
Written by Charlie Dupré

Cast: Tré Medley (John Leason), Kaffe Keating (Isaac Jaggard) and David Monteith (Richard Bardolph)

Directed by Marie McCarthy; Designer: Sophia Pardon; Assistant Designers: Yijin Li and: Lila Vitos; Lighting Designer and Videographer: Rachel Sampley; Sound Designer: Adam McCready; Dramaturg: Sam Pout; Associate Director: Chris Yarnell; Assistant Director: Joanna Woźnicka; Stage Manager: Meghan Smyth

19 September – 7 October
Press Night: Friday 22 September at 7:30pm

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