Philip Massinger was born in Salisbury in 1583 with strong family connections to Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, whose family seat was at nearby Wilton House. In the early years of his career as a poet and playwright, Massinger struggled to earn a living, even enduring a spell in debtors’ prison, and tried to exploit these connections on a number of occasions to gain the patronage of the Herbert family, and alleviate his financial problems. It was not until much later in his career that he attained any kind of financial security through the successes of his works.
First performed in 1629, The Picture was a classic example of Massinger’s work in the decades prior to the English civil war, during the reign of the ill-fated Charles I. Although safely set in a period long before and in a land far away, there are thinly veiled criticisms of the court of King Charles, and Charles himself took an interest in the playwrights work, even demanding that parts of a speech in Massinger’s 1638 play The King and the Subject be cut as it was “too insolent”.
Set in the palace of King Ladislaus of Hungary, and at the country estate of Mathias, a young knight of Bohemia, Philip Wilson’s sumptuous new production of The Picture is its first major presentation in over 100 years. And it has been well worth the wait. The story, transposed to the mid-nineteenth Century at the time of the birth of photography, follows Mathias, as he goes off to war, taking with him an enchanted image of his wife Sophia which – his friend Julio Baptista assures him – will indicate her constancy. If she is challenged in love in his absence, the picture will yellow; if she succumbs, it will blacken.
Having achieved great success on the battlefield, Mathias is presented at the royal court, and catches the eye of the beautiful Queen Honoria, who vows to seduce the young knight and challenge her rival in love, Sophia, to indulge her own vanity.
The Salisbury Playhouse, in Massinger’s own city, is the perfect venue in which to re-introduce his works to a modern audience, and under Wilson’s skilful direction, this production both looks and sounds exquisite. With stunning sets and costumes (by designer Colin Falconer) and imaginative lighting (by Oliver Fenwick) two very different worlds are conjured seamlessly on one stage. Massinger’s language, like Shakespeare’s before him, takes a few moments to ‘get in to’, but is lighter and more lyrical than the bards, and you settle very quickly into the narrative.
The entire cast are excellent and quite clearly enjoy every moment of the piece, given many opportunities to exploit the comedy in the situations. Olivia Grant as Sophia, and Teresa Banham as Honoria are well matched in beauty and in commanding presence as the rivals for Mathias’ affections, and elegantly switch between pious and demure, feisty and machiavellian as the complex plot twists and turns. Simon Harrison, as Mathias, and Christopher Good, as the outspoken Eubulus, are also outstanding, and are given perhaps the best dramatic opportunities in some of the play’s finest speeches. However it is Duncan Wisbey (Ubaldo) and Christopher Logan (Ricardo), as the two hapless courtiers sent to dishonour Sophia, who take top honours with truly show-stealing performances, wringing every ounce of comedy out of their deteriorating situation at the hands of a vengeful Sophia.
Definitely in the same classic mould as William Shakespeare and his own contemporaries in the immediate post-Shakespeare era, Philip Massinger’s work has fallen in and out of fashion over the years, but is well deserving of another renaissance. There can be no finer example than this production, which has clearly been crafted with love from the tireless and dedicated team at Salisbury Playhouse.
As beguiling and revelatory to me as my first Shakespeare play, The Picture makes me long for more discoveries from this oft neglected period in our literary history, and from Massinger himself.