Shakespeare's Vortigern and Rowena by Melissa Murray

Contact Us

BBC Radio 4, 3 March 2010
Vortigern and Rowena, or Vortigern, an Historical Play is a play that was touted as a newly-discovered work by Shakespeare hen it first appeared in 1796. It was eventually revealed to be a hoax, the product of prominent forger William Henry Ireland. Its first and only performance was on 2 April 1796, when it was ridiculed by the audience. Its titular protagonists, are figures from British ancient history.
In Melissa Murray's comedy Vortigern and Rowena was touted as the latest production of the great actor-manager John Philip Kemble (Alex Jennings). It didn't matter whether it was appallingly written in clunking rhyming couplets reminiscent of the 'Pyramus and Thisbe' interlude from A Midsummer Night's Dream; for Kemble it was nothing more than another vehicle for him to show off his talents to what he assumed was an admiring and uncritical Drury Lane audience. His illusions were soon shattered, as the spectators booed him off the stage. He ended up by repeating Vortigern's line "and when this solemn mockery is o'er" in a bitter voice.
Inevitably Kemble looked for a scapegoat, and settled on the unfortunate Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Lorcan Cranitch), who worked as dramaturg for the company, and who had actually played no part in the play's creation. All he had done was to purchase the rights to the play for 300 and the promise of half the projected revenues to author Ireland's family. However he was guilty by association. The only way in which he and Kemble could recover their losses was to close the theatre down altogether and reopen it as a bingo hall.
Shakespeare's Vortigern and Rowena had some trenchant things to say about the so-called 'Shakespeare Myth' which casts him as a great writer whose plays have something to say to all generations. Vortigern represented a deliberate attempt by Ireland and Sheridan to cash in on the Bard's reputation. Kemble was equally guilty, being so wrapped up on his own self-image as a great Shakespearean actor that he failed to notice that the play was a dud. All three of them deserved everything they got for trying to pass it off as a 'lost' play. The director of this production was Marc Beeby.