I, Spie: a show about John Dowland who dedicated a songbook to Countess of Bedford comes to town

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Spooks meets Blackadder: a concertplay about one of Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford’s favourite composers, John Dowland and his largely unknown grisly dealings with the Elizabethan Secret Service

BAFTA-nominated Nicholas Renton directs I, Spie starring leading actors Dominic Marsh (of Kneehigh Theatre plus Coronation Street, DCI Banks, BBC Doctors), Niall Ashdown (of Improbable, Kneehigh and Told By An Idiot), Leila Mimmack (Murder in Provence, Lewis, Silent Witness, BBC Doctors) and the internationally-acclaimed musicians of The Telling.

It tells the story of how composer/lutenist John Dowland foiled a plot on the life of Queen Elizabeth I and his ensuing grisly dealings with the Secret Service.

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Think Spooks meets Blackadder. Ultimately, Dowland’s fate will be left in the hands of the audience who are tasked with deciding how the show should end. The half concert/half play where music and theatre collide will tour the UK from June 9-23, stopping at Bunyan Meeting in Bedford on Friday, June 21 at 7.30-8.50pm.

Performance of I, Spie in North London, 2021Performance of I, Spie in North London, 2021
Performance of I, Spie in North London, 2021

John Dowland was no stranger to Bedford, it seems. Lucy Russell, the Countess of Bedford (1581–1627) was a strong supporter of musicians, with Dowland being one of the most noteworthy.

In return, Dowland dedicated his Second Book of Songs (1600) to the Countess, which includes some of Dowland’s best known songs. In particular, the song ‘Fine Knacks for Ladies’ is not only performed in I, Spie but is the inspiration behind the character Maria who sells trinkets which she calls “trash” – “though all my wares be trash, the heart is true”.

I, Spie is centred around an extraordinary letter which Dowland wrote to spymaster Sir Robert Cecil in 1595. At the time, Dowland was travelling Europe, having taken umbrage in having not secured a court post as a lutenist when one fell vacant.

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Cecil had signed Dowland’s travel papers and probably told him to “keep his eyes and ears open”. So when, as a Catholic Englishman, Dowland is approached by English ex-Pats living in Florence and Rome, who are plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, Dowland dishes up the information on the plot and key players to Cecil. I, Spie imagines the gaps in what we know about Dowland‘s life at that time, what led to the moment of his writing that letter, and what happened in the aftermath.

“Being a Catholic informant in Elizabethan England was a dangerous business – no one entirely trusted you, even if your information was helpful” explains writer/soprano Clare Norburn.

“The 1580s has seen a series of Catholic plots and the terrifying threat of the Spanish Armada – and with the Queen ageing without any clear succession, by 1595 there was a febrile sense of panic and suspicion.

"In that context, it is no wonder that Dowland’s letter reads like a man out of his depths: he sounds scared for his own life - and with good reason. Catholics who informed were not always fully trusted - many ended up on the gallows. But on the other hand, he does dish up the information and effectively foil the plot… Quite how involved in it all was he?”

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The Secret Service’s practice of recruiting students from Oxford and Cambridge goes back to this period. It was often seen as fashionable and exciting for students to dabble in Catholicism. So there was a ready supply of potential recruits who had already shown Catholic leanings who could easily be turned as informers.

The origins of the modern Secret Service were formed during Elizabeth I’s rule – initially under the direction of the inspirational Sir Francis Walsingham, who initially had to fund the service out of his own pocket. His death in 1590 caused a vacuum: and a fight for supremacy between Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex. So there was potential for double dealing between followers of those two key players within the service itself.

“What is fascinating is how contemporary are the issues about how far espionage should have freedom to pursue the country’s safety.

I was also interested in what happens to a musician/composer who suddenly finds himself caught up in this world. How does informing sit with Dowland being an artist? All through the ages, musicians and writers have been caught up in espionage: the best known example of Dowland’s age is Christopher Marlowe; but there is also Dowland’s exact contemporary at Oxford, the composer Thomas Morley, who also worked for the service.

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And later on, the playwright Aphra Behn, the writer Daniel Defoe… What does it mean to be a writer/composer/performer and privately also a carrier of espionage secrets….?”

The drama is directed by Nicholas Renton (BAFTA-nominated for Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, plus Musketeers, A Room With A View, Lewis, Silent Witness).

The award-winning playwright, Clare Norburn, is also the soprano and Artistic Director of The Telling, who are renowned for immersing audiences in a world of music and theatre. They will soundtrack the drama with music by Dowland and his contemporaries, alongside lively Elizabethan tavern, street and courtly masque music.

The tour of I, Spie consists of 13 dates, stopping at Bunyan Meeting in Bedford on Friday, June 21 at 7.30-8.50pm. Tickets are £5-£20 and can be booked from https://www.thetelling.co.uk/events/i-spie-bedford

The tour of I, Spie is supported by Continuo Foundation.

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