Book Review: Mat Osman’s The Ghost Theatre is a vivid imagining of Elizabethan England

Shay is an outsider. Part of a fringe religion known as the Aviscultans, she has never quite lived up to the legacy of her mother, who divined great messages from the murmurations of starlings. Regularly escaping to London, she works as a messenger, skipping nimbly across the city skyline, and, occasionally, staging rescues of birds trapped in dingy shops and violent fighting rings.

Nonesuch is a talented young actor at Blackfriars Theatre, but the accolades of the stage hide much darker truths. Rapidly aging out of the roles that keep him fed, watered, and relevant, he’ll need to come up with a solution soon. Something bold. Something exciting. Something that will turn the Elizabethan city on its head.

Opening with the unlikely meeting of these two young outcasts, Mat Osman‘s The Ghost Theatre is a gripping ahistorical novel, infusing Tudor-era politics and poverty with a thread of mysticism that never quite reveals whether its real or not. And that rather feels like the point; this is a tale of transportive power – whether it comes from theatre, religion, or even science – and how emotion and evocation can influence and empower. That it’s also dripping with beautiful prose and vivid imagery doesn’t hurt either.

Ostensibly a story about the formation of a roaming theatre troupe, The Ghost Theatre is rather more the story of its players and the powder keg world they live in. From the seedy underbelly of the theatre district to the abandoned houses of the rich fleeing the plague, and then further north to where ordinary people grow frustrated with the accumulation of power in London, its a novel of pushed buttons and breaking points.

It’s clear that a wealth of research has gone into it, grounding Shay, Nonesuch, and their supporting cast of lost boys, criminals, and alchemists in a rich reality – even as it plays merrily with historical accuracy. And when the reveals come, heart wrenching as they sometimes are, its with a sense of understanding that this is the price the poor must pay to survive.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mat Osman’s The Ghost Theatre is out now through Bloomsbury. Grab yourself a copy from Booktopia HERE.

Jodie Sloan

Living, writing, and reading in Brisbane/Meanjin. Likes spooky books, strong cocktails, and pro-wrestling.