Category Archives: drama

Not a free man

It seems to me that Timberlake Wertenbaker in ‘Our Country’s Good’ named her convict hangman James Freeman  with a strong sense of irony.  Freeman is a person trapped by his religion, his complicated relationship with women, (not least his late mother), and ultimately by the compromises these other entrapments lead him in to.

Freeman, it seems, received his Catholic faith at his mother’s knee, and we may suspect it came well laced with fear:

“…my mother…, may God give peace to her soul and breath pity in to the hearts of hard women…”

and it has left him with a mortal fear of death:

“When I say my prayers I have a terrible doubt.  How can I be sure God is forgiving me?  What if he will forgive me but hasn’t forgiven me yet?  That’s why I don’t want to die Sir!  That’s why I can’t die.  Not until I’m sure.”

But it is not just God that Freeman seeks the approval, and forgiveness, of but women, especially his fellow convicts.

“But it’s God’s judgment I’m frightened of…and the women’s.  They’re so hard.  Why is that?


“…it’s the women.  They’re without mercy.”

The reason that Freeman is hated by especially the women convicts is that he has agreed to become the hangman for the colony, as a way of saving his own life. It is not the first compromise he has had to make to save himself; in England he informed on his fellow coal heavers on Shadwell Dock who had rioted as part of a pay dispute in which a sailor was killed.  He blames, at least in part, his mother for his predicament as it was her that brought the family to London, away from his beloved Ireland.

“If only we hadn’t left then I wouldn’t have been there.  Then nothing would have happened.”

So is Freeman just a man trapped by circumstances?  It isn’t quite that simple.  As he recounts the story of that day on Shadwell Dock it seems he was indeed at the centre of the action and we can’t be too sure how innocent he really is. It is interesting to note, and easy to miss, how his descriptions of his involvement shift as he talks:

“I wasn’t even near the sailor who was killed.”


“But I didn’t kill him….maybe one blow, not to look stupid you know, just to show I was with the lads, even if I wasn’t, but I didn’t kill him.”


“And they found the cudgel, but I just had that to look good, that’s all!”

At best perhaps we can say that he is a man easily led, who thinks that going along with the crowd will lead to an easy life, but who is always sadly disappointed.

“And when it happened again here and I had hopes of making a good life here.  It’s because I’m so friendly see?  So I go along and then I’m the one who gets caught.”

Once again he finds himself forced in to a vicious choice between dying uncertain of forgiveness or living damned by his fellow convicts. A choice that drives him to the edge of desperation:

“But when they say to you hang or be hanged, what do you do? God had mercy on the whore, the thief, the lame…surely he’ll forgive the hang….!”

But what I think Freeman dreams of most is of being accepted and indeed loved by the women, or perhaps finding one who will love him uniquely.  He thinks he has seen a way that might happen, remembering a time when some traveling actors came to his village in Ireland:

“They were loved like the angels Lieutenant, like the angels.  And the way the women watched them, the light of a spring dawn in their eyes”

Perhaps if he can be an actor they will love him like the angels too.

There are little in the way of final answers in ‘Our Country’s Good’, but we have plenty of provisional ones.  It seems that perhaps Freeman might be saved through his role in the convicts’ play, or set on the path to salvation, but perhaps not exactly as he expected.  The convicts experience that effect central to many who collaborate to create plays; the joy of the shared enterprise and the sense of being part of something greater than oneself.  When he is faced with the crisis of being called on to hang his fellow actor, Liz Morden, he finds the choice unbearable.  The clash of brutality and intimacy when he has to measure Liz for her sentence is unresolvable.

“…I need to lift her.  You don’t mind do you Liz? …. She’s so light.  I’ll need a very long rope.”

“Goodbye Liz…..You were a very good Melinda…..No one will be as good as you.”

Freeman is desperate for some sign from Liz that she understands his predicament and perhaps even forgives him for what he feels he has no choice but to do.  There is no such forgiveness on offer, but the wall between them is instead broken down by the shared horror of seeing Harry Brewer’s final collapse. I don’t think it is lost on Freeman that Harry’s illness seems closely related to his (Harry’s) own guilt about previous hangings.

In the final scene Freeman makes a bold claim to Liz:

“I couldn’t have hanged you”

But is this a line he can hold?  The consequences of refusing to hang Liz, for a man who has taken on the role of hangman in return for a stay of his own execution, would be fatal.  Does he finally understand the reality of his compromises when faced with the person of Liz Morden who he has come to know and respect through the shared experience of the play?  Does he perhaps believe that by refusing to hang Liz he would have found the goodness and forgiveness he so desperately seeks?  Of course the fact that Liz has been reprieved means that, at least for now, Freeman’s claim remains untested.

In my as yet relatively short acting career every play has been a teacher with a unique lesson to impart. For me playing Freeman has been about realising that it is not my role to try to influence the audience’s opinion of James Daniel Patrick in any particular direction, or even indeed to judge him myself.  Freeman is a paradoxically complex yet open character.  My job is to tell his story faithfully in his own words and from his point of view.

My job is to believe him.

A Tale of Two Hangmen?

Whilst rehearsing for a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good’ we have become aware of an ambiguity that has led to a somewhat strange question: how many hangmen are there in the play?

On the face of it the answer should be simple; we have James Freeman, given the nickname by his fellow convicts of ‘Ketch’, the traditional epithet of the time for a hangman, and a label that Freeman hates,

Ralph:  Get back to the camp immediately,  I’ll see you in the morning Ketch.

Ketch: Don’t call me that Sir, I beg you, don’t call me by that name.

Act 1:9

There are many other references to Freeman as the colony’s hangman, for example:

Ketch: Shhh, you’re interrupting the director

Dabby: So we are Mr Hangman!

Act 1:11

But what then are we to make of various lines of Harry Brewer, such as, when speaking of Handy Baker, a marine hanged for stealing food?:

Harry: I didn’t want to hang him, Ralph, I didn’t.


Harry: She thinks I hanged him to get rid of him, but I didn’t Ralph.

Act 1:4

And Harry’s descent in to madness seems to a large extent to be driven by his guilt over his involvement with the deaths of Handy Baker and Thomas Barrett; Act 1:4, Act 2:3, Act 2:6.

So was Harry Brewer a hangman too, handing over the role to James Freeman later, or was his involvement something else, that he nevertheless identified closely with the actual act of hanging the men?

My belief is that there is only one hangman in the story, James ‘Ketch’ Freeman, and that despite Harry’s words about hanging Handy Baker, these should be taken as metaphorical and that Brewer’s role was something different.  So what is the evidence for this?

1. James Freeman’s survival

In Act 1:3 we learn that three men have been sentenced to hang for stealing from the colony’s stores, just about the most serious crime possible in a community on the brink of starvation, (e.g. Act 1:6).  These men are Thomas Barrett, James Freeman and a marine, Handy Baker.  The colony at this point does not have a designated hangman and Governor Phillip tasks Harry Brewer with finding someone to take on the role:

Collins: I’m a Kemble man myself.  We will need a hangman.

Phillip: Harry, you will have to organise the hanging and eventually find someone who agrees to fill the hideous role.

It is perhaps at this point that the ambiguity first appears: ‘and eventually find someone….’.  Should we take this to mean that initially Harry is to assume the role and then hand it over to someone else?

However, the custom of the day was to recruit hangmen from the amongst convicted.  Since no one usually wanted to take on the hated role the easiest way was to coerce a person already sentenced to hang by offering them a reprieve if they became the executioner.  They were not pardoned but merely had their own death sentence suspended for as long as they usefully served in the role.

James Freeman had been sentenced to hang with Handy Baker and Tom Barratt but somehow he survives and they die.  What other way could this have happened except for him to have been the one who agreed to put the noose around their necks and knock away the block they were stood on?

2. Freeman’s own story

In Act 1:9 Freeman is trying to convince Ralph that he is a victim of his own circumstances; the man always in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He is also a man so scared of dying that he will do almost anything to save his own life.

Ketch: That’s why I don’t want to die Sir.  That’s why I can’t die.

Ketch:  And when it happened again here, and I had hopes of making a good life here.  It’s because I’m so friendly, see, so I go along, and then I’m the one who gets caught.  That theft, I didn’t do it.  I was just there, keeping a look out, just to help some friends you know.  But when they say to you ‘hang or be hanged’ what do you do?

The answer for Ketch is that you hang.

Ketch: Someone has to do it.  I try to do it well.

And in Act 2:6 we see him trying to do it well.  More importantly we see him and Brewer talking about the hanging of Thomas Barrett, and it seems clear that both of them were involved, but it was Freeman who did the hanging.

Harry: …You’ve hung a boy.

Ketch: That was a terrible mess, Mr Brewer, don’t you remember….  I don’t want to repeat something like that.

3. Harry’s own words

Although on a number of occasions Harry seems to claim he hanged Handy Baker and Thomas Barrett, on other occasions he seems to recognise that this isn’t literally true, but rather that, in the case of Handy Baker at least, Harry was not sorry to see him die. In Act 2:3 Harry is delusional and arguing with the dead Handy Baker.

Harry: I didn’t hang you. ‘You wanted me dead.’  I didn’t.  ‘You wanted me hanged.’  All right, I wanted you hanged.

And in Act 1:4

Harry: You don’t think I killed him then?

Ralph: Who?

Harry: Handy Baker.

Ralph: No, Harry.  You did not kill Handy Baker.

Harry: Thank you Ralph.

4. Harry’s position in the colony

In the cast list three characters have additional information indicating their official roles within the colony.  Harry Brewer’s is given as Provost Marshal.

Provost Marshal: An officer charged with the apprehension, custody and punishment of offenders – 1873

The reason that Governor Phillip tasks Harry with organising the hanging and why it is Harry who has all the information about the convicted men to hand is because it is Harry’s job to handle these affairs (Act 1:3).

So, to conclude, although Harry sometimes, but not always, speaks as though he hanged Handy Baker, and although his guilt concerning Baker and Barrett’s deaths seems to be a significant factor in his growing mental instability and eventual fatal stroke, I would suggest that the bulk of the evidence points to his role being limited to that of Provost Marshal.  It was Harry’s job to organise the hanging but it was Freeman, as ever bargaining for his life until he can be sure God has forgiven him, who put the noose around their necks.


Saving Signior Benedick

Sometimes (occasionally) life throws you such a lovely ball that you’re left wondering how it was that you were so lucky to be standing in the right place to catch it.  For me such an occasion has been the opportunity to be part of a group from Morecambe Warblers who have just created and performed a production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.

It was of course a crazy idea that Carol, Phil and Chris had; a directing team with no experience of directing Shakepeare, leading a cast with no experience of performing it.  What could possibly go wrong?  But, of the many interesting and valuable aspects of this process, one of the main ones has been just that, that it has been a process.

There were no auditions, just a call out to people who might be interested to turn up and see what happened.  At that first meeting (which I ended up at more or less by a chance remark from Phil, hence the luck), a largish group assembled and we tried a bit of reading.  That continued for a number of weeks in rooms above pubs and a local sports club.  The numbers turning up dwindled fast and started to look decidedly thin.  However for the group that remained something started to happen.  We moved from often not being sure how to pronounce some of the words, to starting to explore what they meant, and the world they belonged to.

We had a lot of fun trying out the different characters, and learning from each other’s ways of delivering the lines.  These strangely speaking characters on the page started to become more like real people with an interesting story ( or in fact many stories to tell).  And we each started to be drawn to some of them.

We eventually reached a point when the directing team asked who we were interested in playing, before they went in to a week long huddle, leaving us on tenterhooks waiting to find out who we would be.

I had, I admit, become quite fascinated by Signior Benedick of Padua (a place of which I will never be able to hear again without thinking of Cathy, our wonderful Hero, and how she said it in the opening scene).

Benedick who, as we first meet him, is a blustering, arrogant misogynist. Who could like him?  Why would you want to play him?

As I mentioned before, there are many story lines in MAAN; the tangled love affair of Hero and Claudio, the villainy of Don Jon and his henchman and henchwoman (in our case), the  ambivalent relationship of Benedick and Beatrice, and the fraught one between Hero and Leonato.  Weaved through all these I sensed another one that intrigued me; the redemption of Signior Benedick.

I think it is clear that Benedick and Beatrice have a history.  He has, sometime before we meet them, won her heart and lost it, almost certainly through betrayal.  He is getting older and knows that his days of soldiering, adventure and the carefree, playboy life style are coming to an end.  He also knows that he has lost the one true love of his life through his own stupidity and he won’t get it back.  He covers up this knowledge with a front of acerbic wit and a loudly proclaimed disdain for women.

So what can save Benedick?  It starts of course with the mischievous plotting of his friends, who see it as a sport to pass the time until Hero and Claudio’s wedding, to engineer for Beatrice and Benedict to fall in love.

But those ‘gulling’ scenes, as splendid as they are, (what a privilege to be allowed to attempt the ‘this can be no trick’ soliloquy – if I worked on it for another six months I might get it really right), they are only the start of Benedick’s transformation.  By the end of the scene  he has been given a glimmer of hope.  It is no surprise that he falls for the ridiculously obvious ploy, it is the thing that he most wants to believe in the world.

It is however, in the wonderful and terrible first wedding scene that so much of the emotional work of this play is done.  It is here that Benedick is brought face to face with the decisions that will change his life one way or another.  What an incredible scene!  My job was made so much easier with the intensity that, in the first part, Hero (Cathy), Claudio (Matt) and Leonato (John) brought to that heart-wrenching confrontation.

Claudio: Benedick’s closest comrade in arms.  Benedick is utterly dismayed to see the brutality of his friend’s denunciation of Hero.  You would think that Benedick would intervene here to stop the abuse, and the fact that Shakespeare doesn’t allow it is agonising when you play this scene.

Leonato: something of a mentor and surrogate uncle to Benedick, and for whom Benedick obviously has much respect and affection.  But Leonato’s rejection of Hero, driven by his pride and concern for his family’s reputation tears another rip in Benedick’s loyalties.  Benedict tries to temper Leonato’s fury (“Sir, sir, be patient”), and his gentleness with the old man near the end (“Signior Leonato, let the Friar advise you”) is touching, but Benedick by then has already made his choice…

Hero: An interesting one.  I don’t put any store by Benedick’s insulting remarks about Hero in the opening scene, I think his aim there is very much to wind Claudio up and bolster his anti-women reputation.  He obviously is a close friend of the family and would have known Hero well.  I think his response to her shaming shows that underlying all is the  feeling  of an older brother towards her.  Because of the way our script had been edited, Cathy and I noticed after we’d been rehearsing for some weeks that we never actually exchanged lines (other than her handing me the letter in the final scene).  This seemed strange to us and partly for a bit of fun, but as it turns out I think quite correctly, we decided to add a ‘moment’ in the wedding scene, as the Friar explains her plan (yes our Friar was Mandy), where they turn to each other and nod, Hero to signify her agreement with the Friar’s suggestion, and Benedick to signify that yes, he would keep her secret and play his part.  It is Benedick’s first step in his journey.  He has made the choice to side, not with Claudio and Don Pedro, or even Leonato, but with Hero.

Then of course we come to the final part of that scene, when all have left the stage apart from Beatrice (thank you Zoë) and Benedict.  If I ever had any doubts about Shakespeare’s brilliance, (and yes I admit it, I had many), this relatively short exchange removed them.  What he achieved in so few lines is amazing.

First we see Benedick’s concern for Beatrice.  Gone is all the bluster and witty reposts. He cannot stand to see her so upset; he is upset himself by what he has just witnessed.  He wants to make things right, but at first Beatrice will not let him in, her hurt and anger are too great: “It is a man’s job, but not yours”.

And there we reach the first life-changing decision Benedict makes.  Beatrice is about to walk out on him, perhaps this is the last chance he will have, and so he shows that for all his faults he lacks neither a reckless courage or a willingness to make himself vulnerable. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you!” more than half expecting his love to be thrown back at him and mocked. But instead he hears, though mixed with anger and confusion, the words that tell him that Beatrice does in fact still love him too.

The next few moments are perhaps the happiest Benedick has experienced for many years as finally Beatrice fully admits her love.  Is the redemption of Benedick complete?  Here he is, hearing words of love from the woman he thought he’d lost, surely we have reached the happy ending.  No, for now he will be faced with the perhaps the hardest decision of his life.  When, in his joy he urges Beatrice to “bid me do anything for thee”, Beatrice responds from the depths of her anger with the demand for Benedick to kill Claudio.  The idea appals Benedick, but when he refuses all of Beatrice’s rage for her cousin, and no doubt for herself engulf Benedick.  He tries to respond but has nothing that will answer Beatrice’s charges until at last he once more offers the only thing he seems to have, his love, “By this hand I love thee”.

And finally Beatrice presents him with his ultimate choice, “Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it”.  Benedick, perhaps more than Beatrice in her anger, understands the full implication of the choice she is asking him to make in that moment.  He can say no, and thus once more betray and no doubt lose Beatrice, or he can challenge Claudio, which will almost certainly end one of two ways; either he will kill his friend or be killed himself.  That last possibility is one that no production of MAAN I have seen seems to really have acknowledged and so was something I really wanted to bring out in Benedick’s final line.

Benedick tries one last time to avert the crisis and alert Beatrice to the enormity of what she is asking for, “Think you in you soul…?” but her anger and hurt are too great.

For me “Enough, I am engaged” is an anguished cry as Benedick makes his decision.  He cannot bring himself to lose Beatrice again, or else he will die trying to be loyal to her.

In the rest of the line he tries to impress upon her the likely consequences; either Claudio or he shall not survive this encounter.  He asks for some comfort to take with him, “think of me?”, and so he bids her farewell, not knowing if he will ever see her again, heading off to challenge his friend.

I think it is not important from the point of view of Benedick’s redemption that the duel is never fought.  He most sincerely challenges Claudio and I have no doubt that he would have followed through if other events had not intervened.  When we finally reach the second wedding we see the new Benedick (or the old one released from his self-imposed prison).  He may still have some difficulty in bringing himself to ask Leonato for Beatrice’s hand in marriage, but his nervousness is not going to stop him.  He cannot even wait until Hero and Claudio’s wedding is complete before proposing to Beatrice.  There may be just one or two minor obstacles to overcome (Beatrice’s reluctance to admit her love in front of everyone), but Benedick’s friends are on hand to help him complete his journey.

And so it is, I think, that amid all the other many twists and turns, laughter and tears that make MAAN so rich a story, that Signior Benedick is saved, most of all from himself.

Which leaves only perhaps one thing left to say, which is a huge thank you to all my fellow cast, the directors, the crew, and of course the audiences who bravely paid good money to see what would become of this crazy experiment.  I think the fact that we didn’t know what would become of it ourselves when we started out was what made it so special.  A truly lovely ball to catch.