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Lichfield playwight Phil Preece. Photograph © Annette Rubery.
On May 30, 1593, the dramatist, poet and translator, Christopher Marlowe, was said to have been stabbed to death by Ingram Frizer in a brawl in a house in Deptford. But far from being a common tavern brawl, as was widely believed at the time, many scholars of Marlowe – who was a contemporary of Shakespeare and left us seven plays, including Doctor Faustus – now think that the house, owned by one Widow Bull, was a safe house for government agents, and that Marlowe himself was a spy in the employ of Queen Elizabeth I. This popular Elizabethan conspiracy theory is now the subject of a brand new play, Dark Angel, commissioned by the Lichfield Festival and written by local playwright Phil Preece. Preece – well known for comedies such as House of Pain, Almost Human and That’s Entertainment – is no stranger to the Elizabethan period; his last play, Precious Jewel, was set in 1585, and explored the religious turmoil of the age. However Dark Angel is the first time that Preece has collaborated with director Tracey Street, who has worked extensively at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. So what really happened to Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe on that day in 1593? Preece explained:
“They walked in the garden, they diced, they played cards, they dined and there was a row about the bill. The body was exhibited at an inquest two days later and was buried that day in a corner of St Nicholas’ Church in Deptford. “But there are two huge problems with this: the first is that the Widow Bull did not keep an alehouse, it was a safe house (the other three were all in the secret service); secondly, at the inquest 16 gentlemen swore the story that they’d been told – killed in self-defence – although it wouldn’t stand up in a modern court. They couldn’t have possibly known that because they weren’t present.”
Interestingly, several days before the incident, Marlowe had had several charges laid against him, thought to be connected to allegations of blasphemy. Following the ‘stabbing’ there was a body and a burial – those things are documented – however, the Widow Bull, far from being a humble alehouse-owner, turns out to have close connections with the Court (her sister, Blanche, was the god-daughter of Blanche Parry, who had been the Queen’s nanny). The jury concluded that Frizer acted in self-defence, and within a month he was pardoned. Preece said:
“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at maps. The house isn’t there, but Deptford Strand, where it happened, is and it’s like an open area of ground. So they walked in what was an open garden, and, of course, from it you can not only see the river, you could probably smell it, because it was a few yards away. “What they were really doing was waiting for the tide to come in so that [Marlowe] could get in a boat down-river and get on a ship and go abroad. It’s my belief that he had gone abroad, and was told that he could come back when things had calmed down. “So what the play’s about is Marlowe in old age, bitter, telling his story – because he didn’t die, he lived on in exile from England, and from the theatre, which he more or less created because Doctor Faustus was the first modern play.”
Dark Angel premieres at the Lichfield Garrick Studio on Thursday (July 7) and Friday (8pm, £10). For tickets call the box office on 01543 412121 or visit www.lichfieldfestival.org.

Annette Rubery

A media and communications professional with ten years’ experience on Metro newspaper and a passion for web development and social media.