There were moments when I thought I’d woken up in a nightmarish episode of Horrible Histories. But it wasn’t good enough for that. And when countertenor William Purefoy gave a gleaming duet on ‘Sound the Trumpet’ with Alison Balsom, accompanied by the spirited English Concert, you could almost forget this meant to be a ‘play’ at all – until actress (Jessie Buckley) sang a grindingly flat rendition of ‘The Plaint’ from the Fairy Queen (they could fork out for two male singers, but a soprano was apparently a luxury too far).
How on earth did this ‘entertainment with trumpet’ come into being? Alison Balsom approached director Dominic Dromgoole saying she wanted to play at the Globe. Purcell’s ravishing late music for trumpet, and the royally-employed Shore brothers for whom he wrote, became a focus. So far, so promising. One could imagine conflicts between royalty, impresario, composer and musicians ripe for dramatisation. Then Samuel Adamson was asked to conjure a play and, being au fait with late-17th century fashions, opted to pen a ‘masque’ even though he admits in the programme that ‘Unfortunately, semi-operas don’t stand up dramaturgically’. Quite. So, hey presto! a rag-bag of sketches and non-sequiturs.
The best aspect of the evening was, inevitably, Purcell’s music and the refined yet resplendent trumpet playing of Alison Balsom, Mark Bennett and Adrian Woodward alongside game members of the English Concert. The worst was the empty trotting out of all the vibrant tropes of a Globe performance. There were random borrowings from Midsummer Night’s Dream, comic engagement with the groundlings not through developed characters but a puppet bird poo-ing on someone’s head. Superb live music and dance, a willing audience, a cast acting their socks off – but no drama to give it meaning. Wasn’t it the Bard himself who said, ‘The play’s the thing…’?
Gabriel runs until 18 August