The 'reckoning,' according to the English Dictionary, may be interpreted as a 'settling of accounts'. Quite in what manner the account of Christopher Marlowe's life was settled has remained unclear for centuries, but Tony Haygarth's crackling new play, The Lie, offers some potential clues.
The official line was that arguments in a Deptford tavern over the reckoning, or bill, after a night's supping provoked Marlowe's stabbing. However, Haygarth casts doubt on that from the opening scene, set in a coroner's dank chamber. The assistant points to 'oddities and rare chances' in the witness testimony, although his master's dark robe and glowering beard remain impassive.
The manipulations and machinations of court in Elizabethan times can still baffle even the keenest historian. Haygarth's authentic and approachable use of language, and staging, direct us to the poetic playwright being suspected of playing a 'dangerous double game'. Stephen Fewell, as Marlowe, handles the role with singular authority. Handsome, curling locks lend his features a doomed charm as he fends off admirers and accusers in equal measure.
Equally admirable is the younger cast's refusal to pale besides the huge presence of veterans Kenneth Colley and Derren Nesbitt. Colley's supremely baleful eyes can still express more than any waxing soliloquy, whilst Nesbitt's church inquisitor is a darkly godless creation. And where better to delve into Marlowe's final hours than the back room stage of the genuinely characterful King's Head?
Opening in the same week as the historically soft Mother Clap's Molly House, Haygarth's minimalist drama bites with the keen edge of an executioner's axe. Marlowe is presented variously as sodomite, libeller, heretic and innocent victim. But whether he was spirited abroad, murdered or framed, Marlowe burned briefly but brightly. History remains all the richer for him.
The plot's various themes thicken in proportion to the concentration needed to follow the tricksy twists. Haygarth's plea for the 'gentle physic of our understanding' to replace dogma and creed could well stand as the driving point of The Lie. Whatever Marlowe's sins, it is the merciless complacency of church and state that swirls around the drama like a pea-souper.
This scribe's theory remains that Marlowe was too passionate a soul to settle for a life in exile or isolation. Haygarth presents no final destiny and his work is much the stronger for it. Colley's sombre line, 'What think you Mr Marlowe - is it not time to call for the reckoning?,' tolls like a graveyard bell as the finale approaches. Pregnant with double meaning, it offers neither solace nor solution. So read what you will into the message of Marlowe's strange existence. Fervent generations already have.