Amphitryon Back

Dryden’s strange and captivating Amphitryon (1690) defies simple categorisation. In retelling the myth of Hercules’s conception through his father Jupiter’s desire for the mortal woman Alcmena, the play startlingly combines elements of the pastoral, the comic, and the near-tragic as gods walk among men, presenting mortals with sharper versions of themselves, denying them their identities, and using them for their own purposes. Tricked by Jupiter in disguise, Alcmena unwittingly cuckolds her husband Amphitryon, and then vividly experiences both the heartbreak of his rejection and the mental abuse of Jupiter’s re-wooing in her husband’s shape. However, in a comic sub-plot, the semi-malicious Mercury takes on the disguise of the servant Sosia, wreaking havoc on his sense of self (‘if I am I (as I am), he cannot be I’), and successfully wooing the mercenary servant Phaedra.

Entering the dark theatre, the audience was greeted by rumbles of Jupiter’s thunder, mystifying smoke, and a projected galaxy whirl on the stage – a reminder of the omnipotence of the gods about to play so casually with mortal lives. Dryden’s original direction that gods Mercury and Phoebus ‘descend in several machines’ was here performed by beautifully conceived lighting, which marked the presence of the gods rather than bearing them down from heaven, a move which honoured Dryden’s use of the innovative theatrical hoist technology. Amphitryon’s irreverent portrayal of deities was memorably censured by Jeremy Collier’s pamphlet A Short View of the Immorality of the Stage in 1698, which criticised Dryden’s explicit handling of Jupiter’s sexual misdemeanours: ‘Why are the incommunicable Attributes burlesque’d, and Omnipotence applied to Acts of Infamy’? Collier particularly disliked Phoebus and Mercury’s irreverence towards their father, writing that their pertness is ‘very disagreeable to their Condition’, and Mercury in particular ‘is horribly smutty and profane’. In this production, however, the smut helped to expose Jupiter’s motives. Audun Krüger Abrahamsen’s Mercury was enjoyably cheerful at the prospect of enabling his father’s desires, but his relish was expressed with the full force of the irony it deserved on lines such as, ‘I was considering into what Form your Almightyship would be pleas’d to transform your self to-night; Whether you wou’d fornicate in the shape of a Bull, or a Ram…what Bird or Beast you wou’d please to honour, by transgressing your own laws, in his Likeness…?’ And Phoebus (Chris Casbon) posed Jupiter the questions about godly power we, the audience, would want to ask, with all the exasperation at Jove’s lack of logic that Dryden’s text is so keen to emphasise: ‘Arbitrary Pow’r will hear no Reason’. Ben Kawalec’s Jupiter was pleasantly hateful, and his omnipotence was emphasised by the other characters freezing at his command whenever he had an aside. Dryden’s gods do not need to take human shape to show they share similar weaknesses with mortals, but their enormous power allows them to indulge and legitimise their vices; this production carefully stressed the fundamental difference in agency between men and their deities.

This production was full of delights, which were thoroughly imbibed with Restoration theatrical detail. Original song settings by Henry Purcell were sung beautifully by ‘spirit-singer’ Helena Daffern in dreamy, masque-like interludes, holding the audience – an eclectic mix of all ages – visibly spellbound. The performance space recalled the Restoration stage, being bare and prop-free, and the spectator’s eye was drawn to the arch towards the back of the stage, complete with traditional balcony. In the absence of painted scenery, beautifully contrived lighting set the scenes and established the setting. Actors in scenes set outside (or in the heavens) tended to enter onto the stage through the audience – a nod to the cramped space in which Restoration comedy was typically performed – which saw actors interacting closely with their spectators. Entries in and out of Amphitryon’s house were marked by symmetrical screens on either side of the arch, like those used in the Restoration playhouse, and these moveable screens were deliberately translucent, reinforcing the play’s interest in ideas of seeing and yet not quite seeing.

Michael Cordner’s splendid production worked tirelessly and imaginatively to expose the text’s fluidity of genre, and its capacity for feeling, whilst refusing to let it settle into any individual, easily definable category. The actors adroitly exploited Dryden’s lines, and the gestures they inspire, for their enduring comic appeal. Sosia asking Ampitryon to check the seals on a diamond-containing box, like a magician presenting a pack of cards, was a lovely detail; Alcmena (Harriet Patten-Chatfield), cradled in the arms of Jupiter as Amphitryon, played up the irony of asking Jupiter’s wife Juno for blessings on her marriage-bed; ‘corrupt judge’ Gripus and his cronies physically swivelled between one Amphitryon and the other, unable to tell them apart; Phaedra (Hannah Eggleton) expertly fleeced Jupiter out of all he had and turned to the audience with apparent, greedy delight. But, just as quickly, and faithfully to the generic hybridity of Dryden’s play, the mood could turn very sour.

The programme, which featured a perhaps over-long explanation of the play, informs us that Dryden’s retelling of the Amphitryon myth is unique amongst its multiple adaptations, because it shows Alcmena in her happily married state prior to Jupiter’s abuse, making Jupiter’s actions all the harder to swallow. However, the production found Amphitryon’s position more difficult to explain. Dryden writes him as a – justifiably – angry character, and with this production’s Thomas Leadbeatter flying into a fabulously passionate rage, it was understandable that Alcmena preferred the softly-spoken Jupiter to the real, thuggish and furious Amphitryon. The god’s spell undoubtedly works Amphitryon into a fury and seduces him away from himself, but we had to rely on Alcmena’s horror at the Amphitryon she saw to guess what he might really have been. If the production had distributed the play’s near-tragedy between the two characters, their situation might have been made more pitiable: we were reliant on Alcmena’s sadness for the play’s emotional centre. But when Jupiter seduced Alcmena for a second time, he was so convincing I almost believed him to be the real Amphitryon – only to realise, once Alcmena had left the stage, and Jupiter crowed about his success, that I had been seduced, too. 

At its core, Amphitryon demands that its characters and audience re-examine the concept of truth, by continuously calling systems of proof into question, and exposing their flaws in the face of new, unexplainable systems of power. Cordner’s production was not afraid to explore this central aspect of Dryden’s play, most notably in the moment where Amphitryon faces his mimicker and bares his arm in a victory salute to show the scar he received in battle, expecting to prove his identity as the ‘true’ Amphitryon, only to find that his doppelganger, Jupiter, had an identical scar, and that the most physical hallmarks of identity are not enough. John Chisham’s delightful Sosia was at the centre of this debate, winning us over in his confusion with a plethora of pantomime gestures, puzzled monologues, and carefully thought out ‘logick’, which nonetheless failed to win him his identity back from the god of eloquence. Dryden’s Amphitryon confronts his audience with the idea that the sign may no longer be certain, and that of language, least of all. Cordner’s production laid stress on this ambiguity to construct an ending appropriately open to interpretation. Alcmena and Amphitryon did indeed stand ‘as if mute’, but the voice of the spirit singer prompted a reconciliation, and they took hands. Jupiter’s speech proclaiming Hercules’ imminent birth did nothing to make him feel less cruel, but here the lighting was inspired; a blinding flash of light compelled us to close our eyes to his glory, and acknowledge his omnipotence.

Despite being one of the most popular plays of its time, Amphitryon has fallen out of modern repertoires, a fate sadly shared by all of Dryden’s theatrical writing. However, this offered the University of York’s theatre, film and television department a ripe opportunity for resurrection, and their work to present a play fit for contemporary audiences was nothing short of thrilling; my fingers are now firmly crossed for a nation-wide revival of interest in Dryden’s theatre. His lines were allowed to resonate in their full glory, but instead of the clunky posturing, sword-wearing and ‘period’ costumes (complete with huge wigs) typical of early-twentieth century revivals of Restoration drama, Cordner’s play presented us with sleek, asymmetric, modern costumes, and lithe movement all over the stage. Where Restoration performances would have relied on candlelight to be seen at all, this production’s lighting constituted a powerful theatrical force that set scenes, marked gods’ arrivals, and created heroes. The programme notes warned that ‘spectators of this brilliant play must expect to be repeatedly surprised, as the inhabitants of its fictional world also frequently are’. And we were surprised, absolutely, and delighted. But mainly moved by how well and fittingly Dryden’s neglected text was given a new voice by this clever, beautiful, modern production.

Amphitryon was performed at the University of York on 16th June 2017.