Bill Cain

Shakespearean double talk.

Bill Cain is hardly the first dramatist to bring his September 11 outrage to the stage, but he’s most certainly the first to toss Shakespeare into the mix. His new play, Equivocation, now at Manhattan Theatre Club, takes a speculative look at the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, an unsuccessful attempt by Catholic rebels to blow up King James I and parliament at a time when England banned their religion. What if Robert Cecil, the Jacobean forebear of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, had forced the Bard to write a propaganda play upholding the government’s official stance on the scheme? Would a writer under the king’s patronage—one with a reputation for kissing royal butt—find the courage to dissent?

“The interesting thing is that you can create Shakespeare the way you want him to be because he left so little trace of himself,” says Cain, a Jesuit priest who directed most of the Shakespeare canon during his seven years as head of the Boston Shakespeare Company. “There’s a tremendous amount of research now that is trying to figure out, as always, who the man was, and the pendulum has swung from his being a loyalist to the king and the court to his being a man of convictions that would have been in stern opposition to king and court.”

Using ambiguous language, Cain’s Shakespeare (identified as “Shag”) writes his Gunpowder Plot play, as well as the one his conscience tells him to—that cursed Scottish drama. Although Macbeth has been interpreted as anti-Catholic, with the witches representing religious rebels whose evil taints the title character, Cain takes an opposing view. “The witches never do anything but tell the truth,” he observes with a laugh. Of course, they do it equivocally. When one says that “none of woman born?/?Shall harm Macbeth,” they don’t mean that he’s undefeatable, as Macbeth soon learns.

Macbeth I find a very frightening piece of work,” Cain admits. “Shakespeare captures really serious evil—and it’s unredeemed evil, which is unusual for him. I think it’s his darkest and lowest moment. What was it that drove him to despair at the time?” Cain sees clues in four of the final plays: The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles and Cymbeline. “The plays have the same story: A king throws away a daughter, and nothing will be right until he gets her home in some way.

I love, love, love those plays. And it struck me that as Shakespeare got older in life, something had been left behind that he had to reclaim.”

Cain explores that idea with Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, Equivocation’s sole female presence and arguably the heart of a work that ventures from light to extremely dark. Troupers from the Globe making a mess of King Lear are followed by scenes depicting the execution of accused conspirators. The piece is also theatrically vibrant, with four of six performers navigating an assortment of roles.

“It’s great fun for the actors,” reports Tony-winning director Garry Hynes, whose cast includes John Pankow and David Pittu. “Bill doesn’t hide the fact that he’s using actors in multiple roles. In fact, he makes that part of the bravura of the piece: that in theater you can believe anything.”

An award-winning playwright and screenwriter who cocreated the controversial TV series Nothing Sacred, Cain was in London about three years after the September 11 attacks when the idea for Equivocation struck. The English were coming to terms with the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction that triggered the war in Iraq while Cain was visiting the Tower of London and the Globe Theatre. At the former, two opposing messages caught his attention. One was the mass of prisoner notes scrawled on the wall. The other was a sign claiming that no one was ever tortured there because of religion.

“That’s technically true, because if you had a different religion, you were a traitor and were tortured because you were a traitor,” Cain explains. “It was that government slippery language that allowed untruths to become national history very quickly.” Still, the writer couldn’t ignore the messages of the condemned. “Their words were written literally in the walls of the cells, where people engraved their last words,” he remembers. “You can feel the connection across 400 years.”

And you can hear the gentle passion in Cain’s voice as he talks about how he evolved through the writing of Equivocation. “It’s a 9/11 play, and I was so mad when the buildings went down. I was toxic with rage. In part the play is a journey for me from that rage to tenderness, which is what Shakespeare finally arrives at.”

Equivocation is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club through Mar 28.

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