Conspiracy theories about faked deaths go a long way back. Perhaps one of the most infamous in theatre is that Shakespeare as genius playwright never existed – he was just Christopher Marlowe’s frontman.
That’s the starting point for historical novel The Marlowe Papers, here adapted for the stage as a one-hander by its author – local Brighton writer Ros Barber – and Nicola Haydn, who also directs Jamie Martin in multiple roles.
Kit Marlowe is a bad-boy writer, a dangerously opinionated drunk – and a spy. When his boasting lands him in treasonably atheistic hot water in a puritanical Elizabethan England in 1593, his death is staged and the ‘Shakespeare’ he writes as claims his fame.
Martin is fantastically watchable as Marlowe, launching himself across a bare stage in snarling fury and sadness at his enforced, ghostly existence – the spectre of Hamlet’s father is a bitter source of irony here. And he vividly captures the low-lives and lords populating a tawdry, intrigue-filled England.
Martin’s barnstorming performance lifts a script that, while inherently enjoyable as ‘what-if’ melodrama, betrays its novelistic roots by being overly episodic. It’s in the second half that it snaps into focus as a gripping study of a man in limbo – denied his place in history.