Banishing John Falstaff

Henry IV Part One, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 3 May 2014

The production began on a very sombre note in a candle-lit chapel with Henry (Jasper Britton) prostrated before a large crucifix (1.1). As he began his complaint, the distinctive figure of Richard II appeared briefly on the stage left balcony, indicating that the source of Henry’s malaise was his guilt at usurping his predecessor. This also implied that his self-characterisation as “shaken” referred to his bad conscience about Richard rather than the “civil broils” that were his immediate concern. Henry was immediately brought to our attention as psychologically complex and with depth of feeling and conscience.

However, over in the Prince’s apartment the mood was somewhat different (1.2). The dark chamber contained a large bed, on which Hal (Alex Hassell) bade goodbye to two wenches who had just finished servicing him. One was already visible sat astride him, while a second emerged from under the sheets. Hal went to open the chamber shutters, the sudden noise of which woke Falstaff (Antony Sher), who popped up from under the bedclothes at the foot of the bed. This sudden intrusion of daylight prompted Falstaff’s question about the time of day and his insistence that he was one of the “gentlemen of the shade” rather than a daytime person. Hal opened the window and eventually put a shirt on.

Antony Sher’s Falstaff sounded like the kind of upper-middle class gentleman that haunts the expensive seats at the RSC. It was possible to imagine him preparing for the role by drawing on decades of memories of rubbing shoulders with the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire bourgeoisie.

With the arrival of Poins (Sam Marks), the three agreed to rob at Gad’s Hill (pronounced “Gade’s Hill”). Hal was very excitable throughout the conversation but this changed when he was left alone at the end of the scene.

Hal’s soliloquy was framed in dramatic spotlight centre stage as he addressed the audience in a particularly portentous way with his master plan to live dissolutely and then abruptly revert to virtue. This was first indication of the emphasis that Part One would place on Hal’s change of attitude to Falstaff, together with Hal’s general transformation. Rather than an explanatory footnote to the scene, the speech was a foreboding of dark events to come.

Henry met with the rebels (1.3). The staging emphasised royal power with Henry facing the audience sat on the throne backed by his supporters while the northern insurrectionists kneeled before him. This created an obvious imbalance of status and power quite unlike the semicircle of chairs used in the Globe production.

The bleached blonde Hotspur (Trevor White) immediately looked like trouble. Anger and aggression boiled to the surface. A letter was thrown back into Hotspur’s face and the king rudely shouted at him that he did “belie” Mortimer.

This roughness and tension continued once Hotspur was alone with his relatives. When Hotspur would not stop talking he was wrestled to ground, forcing from him an apology “Good uncle, tell your tale; I have done”. Hotspur insisted on pursuing a course of revenge until he was pulled by the hair on the back of the head and told by Worcester (Antony Byrne) to follow his letter-borne instruction.

The action switched to Rochester as the carriers (Nicholas Gerard-Martin & Robert Gilbert) gathered in the darkness with their lanterns (2.1). A neat piece of technology allowed the turkeys inside their baskets to make realistic gobbling noises. The character usually known as Gadshill was here called Rakehell (Jonny Glynn) and received confirmation from the Chamberlain (Simon Yadoo) of the movements of the intended targets of the robbery.

The more active robbers ran around hiding from Falstaff and teasing him as the heist was prepared (2.2). Hal fell to the ground to listen for approach of the victims, prompting Falstaff’s joke about the levers that would be required to lift him from that position.

The nuns and the carriers were assaulted. The robbers took the money chest and tried to open it with a hacksaw, while Hal and Poins crept up on them in hoods and facemasks. The robbers were surprised and ran off, with Falstaff not even attempting to fight.

Hotspur was annoyed at a weasel-worded letter refusing him assistance (2.3). He threw it to the ground and shouted at it before being intercepted by Lady Percy (Jennifer Kirby). She was a good match for her husband, with the vague air of a tough man’s wife.

She wanted to know why he had been ignoring her. He began to leave but turned back when she mentioned that she had watched over him while he was asleep. She continued to talk sweetly to him and he almost fell for her charms, but then suddenly pulled away to question a servant.

Lady Percy then tried a more direct physical approach and went to grab his little finger, but he wrenched her arm and forced her to the ground, so that she was lying there when she asked him “Do you not love me?” He responded to this by picking her up and holding her aloft with one arm.

The Eastcheap set (and those of other locations) slid sideways onto the stage rather than using the basement trap doors (2.4). This was to make them compatible with the Barbican theatre and other touring venues. It seems that the RST has been fitted with basements and fly towers that cannot be used with its major productions that transfer to London and beyond.

Hal told Poins about his mixing with the common people, whom he jokingly referred to as “Tom, Dick (Harry) and Francis”, the extra name being thrown in case we had not realised what the expression meant.

Returned from his ignominious failure at Gad’s Hill, Falstaff began his fantastical account of the robbery and its aftermath. Hal raised a drink in cheers to the audience, indicating that he would indeed contradict Falstaff’s story for our imminent amusement. Hal stood on the money box to demand Falstaff’s excuse for his arrant lying.

Doll (Nia Gwynne) was present in Eastcheap in Part One, and touched Falstaff affectionately on occasions, preparing us for the full display of their relationship in Part Two.

Moving on to the play extempore, a chair was placed on a table to serve as a throne, while another chair was placed on a table just opposite. Falstaff repeatedly asked if Hal was afraid of the impending fight with the rebels and repeatedly put his hand on Hal’s shoulder, which the prince brushed off.

The comical role play between Falstaff and Hal moved to portentous conclusion. Hal said of Falstaff’s banishment “I do; I will”. At first he was jovial, but then placed his hands firmly on the armrests of the chair and appeared to have a change of heart, brushing a hand through his hair as if regretting his pronouncement. This was followed by Macbeth-like banging at the door.

Hal slapped the Chief Justice (Simon Thorp) when he came looking for Falstaff and Bardolph (Joshua Richards). This served to underline the animosity between the two. This invented business was included because of the subsequent references to the assault in Part Two.

Over in Wales, Hotspur thought he had forgotten the map on which the rebels were to divide their spoils, but Glendower (Joshua Richards) had pulled the huge map in behind him as he entered (3.1).

Glendower looked and sounded just like Sam Cairns’ version of the character at the Globe in 2010.

The King had summoned Hal for a serious talk (3.2). Hal began his excuses for his behaviour, but was pulled by the ear by the King towards the chapel kneeling pad. This marked the turning point at which Hal realised exactly how seriously his father took the issue of his behaviour. If the idea was latent when he had spoken to us earlier in soliloquy, this was the moment that he decided to act on his intentions.

In Eastcheap, Falstaff emptied dregs from abandoned cups into his own, displaying mild signs of delirium tremens (3.3). The speech in which Falstaff described his virtue but ironically undercut each statement with a humorous caveat was here divided between Falstaff and Bardolph so that his companion was the source of the more honest version rather than Falstaff himself. The advantage of this staging was questionable.

A running joke extended across both productions in which all references and allusions to Quickly’s husband and her married status were followed by communal coughing. In Part Two this accompanied references to Quickly (Paola Dionisotti) being a widow.

The inconsistency of the production’s modernisation of language could be seen in the way that the reference to “dowlas” was changed to “muslin”, but the price reference “eight shillings an ell” was left in. An audience trusted to work out that an “ell” is a unit of length could also be trusted to determine that dowlas was a cheap fabric.

Despite his realisation in the previous scene that his relationship with Falstaff had to change, Hal was here still in a good mood with Falstaff as he gave him his battle orders.

Falstaff’s last words in the scene “I could wish this tavern were my drum” were rounded off with the sound of drums heralding the entry of the more reliably martial Douglas (Sean Chapman) and Hotspur (4.1).

Hotspur continued his manic preparations for war brushing aside any concerns that their forces were underpowered.

On his way to fight the rebels, Falstaff asked Bardolph to fill a bottle of sack for him, which when handed over was seen to be comically enormous (4.2).

In an initial sign of his displeasure with Falstaff, Hal was visibly appalled at the condition of his pressed soldiers. Hal could also be seen taking exception to Falstaff’s callous attitude to these men deemed merely “food for powder”.

Hotspur was still raring to attack the King’s forces (4.3). Blount (Simon Thorp) brought an offer of pardon but Hotspur responded by lecturing him at length about the severity of their grievances.

Blount asked “Shall I return this answer to the King?” In a clever tweaking of the text, the following lines, in which Hotspur appears to relent “Not so, Sir Walter. We’ll withdraw awhile”, were given to Worcester. The sequence turned into Worcester being conciliatory, holding back Hotspur and calming his rage, while the young rebel continued to glower with frustrated anger.

This created consistency. Given how eager Hotspur was, the text’s version in which he made the concession looked out of character. It also created a parallel with events in the next scene.

At Shrewsbury Worcester met with the King and his party, including Hal (5.1). In a parallel with the Hotspur/Worcester sequence in 4.3, the King had to restrain Hal from offering to fight with Hotspur in single combat.

Hal showed a new censoriousness towards Falstaff by ordering him to be quiet and refrain from his inappropriate wisecracks. This textual indication of Hal’s changed attitude fitted in well with the other more subtle indications of Hal’s transformation created by directorial decisions.

Hal maintained that the peace offer would not be accepted, exuding an air of foreboding and intimating that the King’s judgment was wrong.

Given his previous pronouncements it was possible to detect some wishful thinking in Hal’s parting words to Falstaff: “Say thy prayers, and farewell” and “Why, thou owest God a death”. His wish was truly father to those thoughts.

This led into Falstaff’s “honour” soliloquy in which he showed us the scutcheon on his buckler to illustrate one of his metaphors.

Worcester decided not to tell Hotspur about the peace offer, realising that the King would inevitably find a way to punish their disobedience (5.2). Hotspur predictably whooped with delight when he heard that the fight was on.

In the midst of the raging battle a desperate Hal asked to borrow Falstaff’s sword (5.3). He offered him his pistol instead, handing over a leather container. Hal discovered that it held yet another bottle of sack, which he angrily discarded, building on his previous animosity to become truly outraged at Falstaff’s inappropriate antics.

Douglas fought the King to the ground, but Hal rushed in to stand over his father, threatening the Scot with his sword, after which Douglas skulked away (5.4).

There was a fantastically fast double sword fight between Hal and Hotspur. Hal lost both his swords and ended up defending himself with his buckler. He regained a sword and was given a second one, continuing to fight without a buckler. Hal eventually dealt Hotspur fatal blows to the stomach. Just before, Falstaff had apparently been cut down upstage and was lying motionless.

Hal honoured Hotspur in death, holding his sword hilt over him and paying him his due respects. Then Hal found Falstaff and did the same but with a subtly different emphasis.

Hal’s contemplation of the supposedly dead Falstaff culminated in him raising his sword over his body, looking as if he would honour Falstaff with praises as he had just done with Hotspur. But he hinted that he was not displeased to see his companion dead, saying: “O, I should have a heavy miss of thee if I were much in love with vanity”, which was crucially caveated; speaking of the battle dead he referred to those other than Falstaff as the “many dearer”.

This was undercut when Falstaff rose up. At first he struggled to right himself, wobbling like beetle on its back. When Hal saw Falstaff alive he took a step backwards in shock and pointed his sword at him as if he were a demonic illusion. Hal ordered Falstaff to carry Douglas away on his back.

This was a very interesting trajectory for the Hal/Falstaff relationship because it effectively cleared the way for the friendlier rapport between them at the start of Part Two.

The concluding scene saw a large map spread out on the stage on which the King, victorious over his immediate enemies, was planning his further campaigns against the rebels (5.5).

 

Henry IV Part Two, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 3 May 2014

The “switch off phones” announcement merged into an exhortation to “Switch off your phone… open your ears”, the latter phrase being the first three words of the Induction to Part Two. The remainder was spoken by the character of Rumour (Antony Byrne), a man looking like a member of the stage crew complete with a Rolling Stones tongue logo t-shirt, picking up on the line “upon my tongues continual slanders ride”.

Rumour used his phone to photograph the audience and the set, then began his speech as multiple copies of the #rumour hashtag were projected onto the back wall, establishing a connection between traditional rumour mill and contemporary social media. The phrase “Open your ears” was also flashed across it and spoken in several languages.

After Northumberland (Sean Chapman) had digested the news of his faction’s defeat and the death of Hotspur (1.1), the mood and location changed.

Falstaff was proudly displaying the medal he had won for his services at Shrewsbury when his Page returned with his water pot (1.2). The boy was very small, justifying Falstaff’s description of him as “fitter to be worn in my cap”. The Page mentioned that Hal had struck the Lord Chief Justice, which to create consistency across the productions had been shown in Part One.

Sher continued his impression of the kind of upper middle class gent so common in the audience at Stratford.

The boring, featureless exposition of 1.3 quickly gave way to some more London-based comedy as Quickly gave Fang (Youssef Kerkour) and Snare (Martin Bassindale) their last-minute instructions about arresting Falstaff (2.1).

There was a brilliant moment of textual awareness. Mistress Quickly mentioned in all innocence her “case so openly known to the world” upon which Fang and Snare each gave a brief downward glance to bring out the sex joke in that line. In keeping with that theme, Quickly was also referred to as “Quick Lay”.

The fight in which Fang and Snare failed to detain Falstaff was not very convincing and was interrupted by the arrival of the Chief Justice, the ensuing dealings with Quickly providing another outing for the running joke about her marriage, this time with everyone coughing at her being a “poor widow”.

Hal and Poins returned from playing tennis and stood around shirtless for a while before getting dressed (2.2). Hal’s reminder of a point already made briefly by Falstaff, that the Page had been a gift from Hal to him, was a sign that their friendship had been rekindled. But the first mention of Falstaff’s name caused Hal to look down at the ground grimly, hinting that all was not completely well.

The arrival of Bardolph and the Page was the occasion of some more winsome child acting. Bardolph was paid money for his silence about Hal and Poins’ trick on Falstaff, but the Page stole the cash and ran off, turning his last phrase in the scene “I will govern it” into his bold statement as he snatched the money bag away from his companion.

The scene showing Lady Percy’s misgivings about Northumberland’s intention to return to war was remarkable for the fact that Nia Gwynne (Doll Tearsheet) played Lady Northumberland in a change to the usual doubling of this role with Mistress Quickly (2.3).

The action returned to Eastcheap, where once again Francis (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) popped up out of the trap door hatch, calling “anon anon, Sir!” to an impatient, unseen customer (2.4).

The private room where Falstaff was being entertained was laid out on a small platform. This looked like another concession to the requirements of touring the production. On first sight, it looked cramped and would prove so later on. The confinement of the scene’s action within such a small space on the large RST thrust looked very odd.

Nia Gwynne’s Doll was sick into a bowl and comforted by Quickly. Falstaff insisted that Pistol (Antony Byrne) be admitted, confirming “It is mine ensign” rather than “ancient”.

Pistol was wide-eyed and with his hair on end to create an alarming look. He entered with a bang as his pistols went off and engaged in his sexual innuendoes.

Doll forced Pistol down onto the ground, but he soon overcame, putting a knife to her throat exclaiming “Have we not Hiren here?”

Seeing that Doll was in danger, Quickly disarmed him as he commented “These be good humours”. Pistol went from the threatening to the ridiculous. He dropped his trousers and after Doll suggested he should be thrust downstairs, he lewdly asked “Thrust him? Downstairs?” looking at his bulging underpant codpiece.

Pistol wrapped the Eastcheap crew up in a curtain and pulled on it like reins to curb them like “pampered jades of Asia” before being forced out the back of the small set.

Doll questioned Falstaff about Hal and Poins: each of them popped their head up over the rear curtain when mentioned.

They eventually played their trick by pretending to be servers. The first meeting between Hal and Falstaff contained a slight undercurrent of animosity, but nothing to overt dislike on Hal’s part.

Falstaff was called to the court and left the room platform, but paused on the main stage to cry silently with his face in his hand, an extratextual moment. Bardolph saw this and returned to the room to fetch Doll, which is part of the text. She comforted Falstaff in his distress, providing additional weight to the tenderness of their relationship as well as highlighting the vulnerability behind Falstaff’s boasting. The whole sequence provided a neat explanation for Doll’s summons.

Mistress Quickly fell asleep in a chair and the room fell dark and silent.

The third act followed on seamlessly from the previous scene. Wrapped in a dark sheet and looking distinctly unwell, the King entered through the back of the Eastcheap platform as Quickly dozed. His lines to the Page cut.

Henry entered the world of Eastcheap so that when he spoke to us saying “How many thousand of my poorest subjects are at this hour asleep!” he was able to point to Quickly as an example as she snored.

The King walked off the front of the platform to move downstage, which differentiated him from the others who had all left the room through its back door. This suggested that his presence here was illusory: that he was theatrically but not physically inside an Eastcheap tavern.

The interval came at the end of the scene after the King had spoken with Warwick and Surrey about defeating the rebels.

The second half began in Gloucestershire, the refreshed audience encountering the delightful Oliver Ford Davies as Shadow conversing with Silence (3.2). Silence (Jim Hooper) was wearing mittens like a child and was equally childlike in his ignorance, or rather forgetfulness. Shadow asked various questions about their mutual friends and relations, but senescent Silence did not seem to know whom he was talking about.

There was a running gag involving Shadow’s leg shaking whenever he became excited. He first began to tremble when reminiscing about the “bona robas” of his student days, and subsequently when remembering Jane Nightwork a little while after.

The pressed men appeared: Mouldy (Simon Yadoo) was diseased, Wart (Leigh Quinn) crept along the ground and Bullcalf (Youssef Kerkour) was predictably big.

In another annoying textual change, Mouldy said “If it please you” rather than the equally comprehensible “an’t”. If a production starts running scared of the language, then where does it stop?

Bullcalf’s self-correction of his illness from “cold” to “cough” was made to sound like the actor correcting a misremembered line, an effect that was cleverly rendered.

Falstaff managed to leverage the full quotient of innuendo from his exhortation “No more of that Master Shallow…”

Wart was given a gun but could barely hold it upright. Shadow demonstrated its correct use and charged around brandishing it threateningly, ending his display of martial prowess by striking the butt firmly on the ground, at which point the gun went off.

Falstaff communed with the audience, telling us about Shadow’s youth when he was known as “Mandrake”, a remark which prompted a ripple of laughter that Falstaff gratefully acknowledged. He appeared to have found the audience’s level when they snickered at his comment that “he came ever in the rearward of the fashion” with more chortling and Falstaff relishing his apparently unintended double entendre.

Westmoreland (Youssef Kerkour) tricked the rebels into thinking their demands had been met and that they had won (4.1), only for John of Lancaster (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) to confirm the deal, watch the rebel army disperse, and then arrest the traitors (4.2).

Coalville (Robert Gilbert) had been mentioned by name in an earlier scene to give more credence to his sudden appearance in 4.3 as Falstaff helped mop up the remainders of the fleeing rebel forces.

Falstaff called out after the departing John of Lancaster “I would you had but the wit”, making plain his dislike of Hal’s cold-blooded sibling.

This thought led Falstaff into his great paean to sack and its warming, inflammatory effects. He took a deep draught from a clay pot before expounding on each element of its “twofold operation”.

Antony Sher revelled in exploring the physicality of Falstaff’s reaction to sherry. This portrayal was different to that given by Roger Allam in the Globe version, which was slightly more clinical.

The text’s “sherris” was emended rather disappointingly to “sherry”. Sherry is something that is drunk at Christmas, usually in a modest, restrained way. Gourmand Falstaff should really drink something more exotic and tinged with his characteristic wildness, and the word “sherris” fits the bill perfectly.

To add insult to injury, the culmination of Falstaff’s fine speech was also pinched and clipped to deprive it of its full glory. We were left with:

If I had a thousand sons, the first [humane] principle I would teach them should be to [forswear thin potations, and to] addict themselves to sack”.

A beautifully balanced phrase was spoilt by the clumsy hand of the editor.

The King looked very ill and was helped in by his entourage. His surprising reaction on hearing the good news of the rebels’ defeat was to collapse sideways, before being carried to rest in another chamber (4.4).

The King was put to bed with the crown next to him (4.5). The scene provided an efficient but predictable staging of Hal’s appropriation of the crown and his subsequent contrition.

Shallow continued to entertain Falstaff and friends (5.1). Shallow’s repetition of “no excuse” was accompanied by the repeated unloading of money bags, presumably either their pay for recruiting men or bribes paid to them to be excused from military service.

News that the King had “walked the way of nature” was soon followed by the new king being revealed on his throne (5.2). This dramatic reveal was very effective, much more so than having him walk onstage. The text added a reference to the Chief Justice being assaulted: he stated that Hal had “struck me in an Eastcheap tavern” rather than the original “my very seat of judgment”.

Mad Pistol delivered the news of Hal’s accession which was received with great joy by Falstaff (5.3). There was a touching moment at the end of the scene once the stage had emptied of those keen to get to London, Pistol sat with Silence and began to sing “Where is the life that late I led?” and Silence, who had previously been on good singing form, joined in with him.

The arresting officers crudely snatched and discarded the red cushion that Doll had stuffed up her dress to fake a pregnancy and thus escape the law (5.4).

Falstaff readied himself centre stage as the regal procession entered via the stage right walkway and proceeded upstage (5.5). The King entered and walked on past the entreating Falstaff, but then turned round, looked back at his old friend and denounced him. Falstaff showed no sign of upset or shock. Possibly this was recognition and he was just saving face in front of the others.

As we were left to take in the culmination of the subplot, the Page wandered onstage at the end as the lights went down.

Conclusions

The overall trajectory of the Hal/Falstaff relationship was determined by the relative lack of interaction between them in Part Two, so that Hal’s overt statements in Part One were heavily reinforced by subtle hints throughout both parts, preparing the way for his renunciation of Falstaff at the end of the second instalment.

Neither production made use of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s fly tower or basement lift, possibly to facilitate Barbican transfer. If this is to be the pattern for major productions, which have to fit the Barbican, then what was the point of these impressive capabilities?

Spectre

Arden of Faversham, Swan Stratford, 2 May 2014

The stage was full of action as the audience entered. Arden sat at a desk while his overalled workers packed the novelties imported by his firm into boxes which were then carried aloft by a hoist. The back of the set consisted of a large painting of an English village which was being dusted by someone whom we would later discover was Susan, Alice Arden’s maid.

This anonymous Elizabethan tragedy was played through in 1h 50m without an interval.

After a brief expository conversation between Franklin (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Arden (Ian Redford) about his wife’s infidelity, we met Alice (Sharon Small), the object of his suspicions (1). She was nervously comic and this set tone for the rest of the performance.

The production’s basic problem was that by starting in this comic vein and assiduously maintaining it, the tragic side of the play was neglected so that its conclusion felt extraneous. The mood was kept as jolly as possible for as long as possible for fear of confronting the audience with unpalatable ‘difficult’ drama.

But this clashed with the ending in which Arden is brutally and repeatedly stabbed and the guilty parties, along with one innocent person, are executed.

Characterising Alice as a sitcom-style frustrated housewife did not sit well with her subsequent burning at the stake.

The jokiness of Alice’s explanation of her calling out Mosby’s name in her sleep was on one level patently funny, but served as a pretext to render the entire play as comedy. There was very little indication that this was the “lamentable and true tragedy” of Arden of Faversham.

The characterisation of the other main cast followed this line.

Michael (Ian Bonar), the forlorn lover of Susan (Elspeth Brodie), had been recruited by Alice to kill Arden. But his ominous “I’ll see he shall not live above a week” did not feel like a credible threat.

Alice’s lover Mosby (Keir Charles) was a wide boy in a purple suit. This sub-comical persona positioned him as a figure of fun.

Clarke the painter (Christopher Middleton) was a ridiculous figure whose dull clothes, glasses and red facial disfigurement made him into a laughable misfit rather than a sinister conspirator. His lust for Susan, who was lurking all the while under the table cleaning and overhearing their conversations, was played as ludicrous. Clarke gave Alice and Mosby poison to put in Arden’s breakfast.

Alice’s “See where my husband comes” was funny and was soon followed by the suspicious Arden disarming Mosby by taking, not a sword, but a handgun that was stuffed down the back of his trousers.

Alice brought Arden the poisoned breakfast and she and Mosby sat and watched him eat it out of the corner of their eyes. Arden noticed there was something odd about the food and put it aside. Alice threw the bowl to the ground accusing her husband of suspecting her of poisoning him, a charge she tried to refute by taking a spoon and trying to eat it up herself.

Greene (Tom Padley), one of the tenant’s dispossessed by Arden’s land deal, wore an Adidas tracksuit that identified him as low class. His grudge against Arden made it easy for Alice to get him to procure her husband’s murder.

Mosby criticised Alice’s involvement of too many people in their plans. Susan was produced for Clarke to paw at. Alice’s comment that Clarke had made Susan blush was underlined by the way her cheeks were painted with red blushes making her look almost like a doll. There was also something doll-like about the way she was escorted away, crying uncomfortably.

Greene and Bradshaw the goldsmith (Colin Anthony Brown) met two lowlifes Black Will (Jay Simpson) and Shakebag (Tony Jayawardena) in the street (2). Bradshaw, who was wearing cycling clothes faintly reminiscent of a city commuter, did not want to be associated with Black Will and gestured to Greene that they should continue without stopping to talk to them.

But Black Will helped Bradshaw out by identifying the villain who had sold him the stolen gold plate, which because it had been found in Bradshaw’s possession had led to him being wrongly accused of the theft. Bradshaw’s long description of the villain was cut because of its doublet references.

However, Black Will held back the line to Shakebag about spending the money from the sale of the stolen goods until after Bradshaw had left so that it seemed that he had deceived him. Greene had given Bradshaw a letter to deliver to Alice, which would later be used to prove his complicity in the murder plot.

Greene paid the murderers to kill Arden and they enthusiastically took up the assignment.

Michael, now facing a challenge for Susan’s affections from Greene, read out a pleading letter to her which together with an Arden wind-up novelty was ready to be sealed in a padded envelope to be sent to his love (3).

Arden went into Franklin’s London house and the murderers waited outside. Shakebag produced a large jemmy which had previously been stuffed down back of his trousers. He practised swinging it and accidentally hit Black Will with it. This replaced the original text’s shop window accidentally dropped onto Black Will’s head. Shakebag tried to revive Black Will during which time Arden left the house and passed by them.

Greene and the murderers rounded on Michael and forced him to help them with their plan to murder Arden that night by leaving the house doors unlocked. From this point forth Black Will had a bandage round his head that served as reminder of the previous comic mishap.

Michael’s pangs of conscience, which we had previously seen, now obliged him to change his mind (4). He feared that the murderers would kill him too. His panic woke Arden and Franklin and the doors were found to be unlocked, after which they were secured.

The murderers entered with the stage in a total blackout to find the doors locked (5). The complete darkness was very odd and completely unnecessary. Dim light would have been understood to represent total darkness and the result was simply to create confusion. The sound effect of the door being tried was insufficient. This staging was perhaps made necessary by the set not allowing for the presence of a door, but one could have been set up temporarily.

Arden told Franklin about his dream in which he was captured like a deer (6). The original text’s reference to a “toil” was changed to the more comprehensible “net”. Arden’s description of his dream with its imagery of encroaching danger could have been given greater ominous weight to indicate the darker tone of the end of the play, but it felt like an intrusion into its overall gaiety.

The murderers intercepted Michael and he invented a story to excuse his failure to leave the house unlocked (7). Black Will put his knife to Michael’s ear as if ready to cut it off saying “This shall be your penance” but instead pulled the knife away and, laughing at his own joke, invited him to the Salutation inn.

As if to indicate his ambition to supplant Alice’s husband, Mosby sat at Arden’s desk for his soliloquy (8). This had overtones of Henry IV talking of how poor people sleep soundly and Macbeth’s paranoid desire to kill all his potential foes, but the speech fell flat because the character had not been previously presented to us as someone with that kind of tragic depth.

Bringing out the full comic potential of the initial scenes smothered the first inkling that this play was a tragedy that would end in multiple deaths. The audience was being fed comedy like sugar with the result that it developed a craving for more, to the exclusion of more nourishing dramatic sustenance.

Alice entered reading, not a prayer book to suggest piety, but a gaudily covered Bible: this did not suggest the level of seriousness that the sequence demanded. Alice appeared to have changed her mind about the murder of her husband, and Mosby was angry at this betrayal. When she tore the pages out of the Bible, this and their sudden seriousness looked barely credible.

They kissed and made up just as Bradshaw brought in a letter from Greene informing her of their failure to kill Arden in London. Bradshaw was offered a cup of beer, and he ran off mouthing “a cup of beer” as if really grateful for it.

Rifle

The murderers positioned themselves ready to attack up on the balcony, but fell into a comic fight until Greene intervened to refocus them on the job (9). While Arden talked with Franklin down below, Black Will put together a sniper’s rifle but failed to have it ready in time. Their complete ineptitude was hilariously highlighted by Shakebag consulting the rifle’s instruction leaflet.

Lord Cheiny (Joe Bannister) and his Man (Peter Bray) came running in wearing lycra running gear. The presence of multiple witnesses meant that the would-be murderers had missed their chance again. Their bickering attracted the attention of the men on stage who looked up, prompting the murderers to conceal themselves by standing still like posts or trees.

Lord Cheiny invited Arden to dine with him on Sheppey, which the murderers overheard providing them with their next opportunity for assassination.

Arden set off for Sheppey, allowing Greene to show Alice the poisoned crucifix he had prepared as a device to kill her husband (10). Clarke wore blue latex protective gloves to handle the toxic crucifix and he made Alice put on pair as well when she took it from him.

The stage filled with dense smoke to represent the fog as the Ferryman (Ken Nwosu) escorted Arden and Franklin across to Sheppey (11).

Shakebag and Black Will also became lost in the dense fog (12). After hearing the faint sound of Arden’s party passing by, Shakebag fell into the large open stage trap representing the dank marshy ditch and emerged covered in mud. He was helped out by the Ferryman who informed them that they had once again missed Arden.

Greene, Mosby and Alice discovered that this latest attempt had failed and the murderers vowed to catch Arden on his return. The plot in which Alice and Mosby were to confront Arden arm-in-arm was cut and its setup was therefore cut from the end of the scene.

The character of Dick Reede became in this production a Mrs Reede (Lizzie Hopley), who intercepted Arden to complain of about being evicted from her land (13). She had been previously shown trying to catch his attention, so that her approach here was the successful culmination of her previous strenuous efforts.

The fatal curse/premonition by Reede that the land Arden had taken would “be ruinous and fatal unto thee” was underlined by the back of the set turning dark red to suggest bloodshed and the ominous hand of fate.

But set amid the comedy of the failed murderers, this foreshadowing of the play’s tragic ending felt bolted on, an intrusion of seriousness into the continuing sitcom.

The entire sequence in which Arden discovered Mosby and Alice together and the fight between them, also involving Black Will and Shakebag, was cut. This was possibly to reduce the production’s running time, or perhaps it was felt that the elderly Arden could not take the murderers on in direct combat using modern weapons without killing them. The character of Arden was probably originally conceived as a younger and more vigorous than the man presented here.

The murderers met up with Alice and Michael and a plot was laid to kill Arden that night in the house (14). A dining table was set out.

The reference in the text to “tables” was changed to make it clear they were going to play “cards”. In keeping with the modern setting there was no mention of horses or Arden’s counting house.

Mosby brought Arden back and pretended to have fallen out with Alice with the result that Arden then begged him to stay. They drank champagne and sat down to play cards, while the murderers gathered downstage and watched.

Michael suggested that Black Will should creep between his legs which resulted in Michael sitting astride him and both edged forward to sneak up on Arden. This was inherently ridiculous and showed that even at this late stage, the production was intent of milking every last laugh from the plot.

On the key phrase “Now I can take you” Black Will wrapped a towel around Arden’s head, dragged him downstage and then stabbed him.

After repeated stabbings by the murderers, Alice seized a knife and stabbed Arden too.

This really was the point at which the comedy should have ceased.

Instead of placing the body in the counting house, they put the body in a large cardboard box and used the warehouse winch (no dining room should be without one) to hoist the box up into the air. Susan and Alice tried unsuccessfully to clean the blood from the floor, so rushes were strewn over it.

The dinner guests arrived and were plied with drinks. The asides between Michael and Susan in which he planned to poison Alice were cut.

This was to focus attention on the blood soaking out of the bottom of the cardboard box. This drew excited audience attention as some individuals pointed upwards at it to alert their neighbours.

The conspirators managed to persuade the guests to leave and then brought the box down. As they did this snow began to fall along the edges of the stage so that this zone represented the outside where the body was being deposited while inside represented the house. As the box was lowered, it was tipped on its side and the body dumped on the snow to represent its disposal outside, after which the conspirators moved back inside.

The watch entered the house, prompting Alice to act innocent by asking them if they had brought her husband home, but they had in fact come for Black Will.

Franklin announced that Arden’s body had been found despite the fact that it had just sat at the edge of the stage unseen and undiscovered by anyone else. This was a glaring hole in the staging. Franklin produced the hand towel and knife which would be the main evidence against the conspirators, but these had not lain with the body at any point and their appearance now looked strange.

Franklin pieced together the evidence which pointed towards Alice’s guilt against which she could only offer feeble explanations.

The separate scenes for Shakebag (15) and Black Will (17) were cut so that we then saw Alice’s and Mosby’s confessions (16). The actors picked up chairs and sat on them spread around the stage to rue their fate as isolated individuals rather than as a group conversation (18). A voice announced that Mosby and Susan were to be executed, Alice was to be burnt and Michael along with (the completely innocent) Bradshaw were to be put to death.

The Epilogue was spoken by Alice rather than Franklin. She explained the gruesome fates of those who had initially escaped, setting the final tragic note on proceedings.

Nothing in the previous 105 minutes had suggested this bleak conclusion so that it appeared incongruously tacked on at the end.

Conclusions

The RSC did not know what to do with this not-Shakespeare play. It was scared of putting audiences off with an unfamiliar antiquated work and so tried as far as possible to make it appear modern and ‘relevant’, a process which did not do the play justice. Turned into a semi-sitcom, Arden of Faversham was wrenched completely out of its historical context so that residual faithfulness to the text and story clashed with the production’s tacit desire to do away with them completely.

There is a spectre haunting the Swan Theatre: the spectre of One Man, Two Guvnors.

Fell in love with a girl

Galatea, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 26 April 2014

The prologue to Galatea, addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, was turned into a coronation ceremony in which Lyly scholar Leah Scragg was crowned Queen of Lylian scholarship. Some of the boy actors approached her as she sat near the aisle in the rear row of pit seats. One stood on another’s shoulders to place a crown on her head, after which she waved graciously at her subjects.

This was all very fitting for the first performance of an Elizabethan play in the Playhouse.

It was also the last ever performance of Galatea by Edward’s Boys, which rounded off a seminar on John Lyly at Shakespeare’s Globe.

The performance took place in the reconstructed indoor playhouse, but used electric lighting with the chandeliers taken to their highest level. This was partly for safety reasons as the staging at one point involved a pyramid of boys representing a tree.

The basic storyline, two girls disguised as boys fall in love thinking the other to be a girl, resulted in a surprising degree of complexity in its overlapping layers of identity. If Shakespeare took this as inspiration for his own gender-confused plots, then by comparison his look simplified and watered down.

The main weakness with the production was that in order to make the gender confusion look realistic, a decision was made to cast the youngest actors in the two central roles with the result that the most demanding performances were being required of the least experienced and confident of performers. We might call this the epicene paradox.

The difference could be seen in the skill and confidence of the other actors. Playing Diana was a large boy with a mad gaze, who seemed permanently on the verge of ripping someone’s head off, which added  certain tension to every scene she was in. Similarly a confident Cupid ranged the stage with bow and arrow making fun of Diana, by exaggeratedly pronouncing her name as “Dian-ah”.

Taking the lead from standard RSC practice, the apprentices were given Brummie accents, their identity reinforced by the Aston Villa football shirts.

There were bright, jovial and enthusiastic performances by boys who seemed to revel in the absurdity of it all. The conclusion of the play with a rendition of The White Stripes’ Fell in Love with a Girl was therefore entirely fitting.

Some questions remain: principally, did the performance fall into the trap of treating the play comically and thus confirming the ‘old’ view of Lyly as a writer of modish trifles?

The other problem with performing Galatea in ‘original’ period conditions is that it is not possible to recreate the prestige status of boys’ performance.

But there is inherent value in the way such performances offer glimpses into an unfamiliar historical theatre culture.

Absolute beginners

Hamlet, Middle Temple Hall, 19 April 2014 & The Globe, 26 April 2014

Before setting off round the world, the Globe’s touring production of Hamlet played at two very different venues: Middle Temple Hall (tickets £50) and The Globe itself (tickets from £5).

Middle Temple Hall is one of only two extant Shakespearean performance spaces, the other being Hampton Court Palace, so any performance of Shakespeare there is a special event.

The basic touring set was implanted in both spaces: a backcloth hung from a metal framework together with packing cases and planks. At Middle Temple Hall it was performed on a wooden platform. When transferred to the Globe, the outline of this platform was marked on its stage. All of this was good practice for the various conditions they would encounter on their journey.

The performance began with a rousing song about beggars, with the cast accompanying themselves on instruments, which were also used for the incidental music. This was a reminder of how touring companies were often considered little better than beggars unless they could demonstrate noble patronage. This beggars song was also played when the Mousetrap company arrived within the play, further underscoring that connection.

The text drew heavily on the First Quarto (Q1), a short version of Hamlet possibly deriving from a touring version of the play, making its use here another nod to the original touring tradition.

The Q1 borrowings caused Polonius (Rãwiri Paratene) to say that one might “find directions forth”; Claudius (John Dougall) used the word “swoopstake-like” and concluded his meditation on his crimes with “No King on earth is safe, if God’s his foe”. The Gravediggers spoke of the grave as a “long house” and of water as a “parlous devourer” of bodies.

The most extensive Q1 borrowing was an entire speech unique to that version about “warm clowns” and the various ways in which they speak more than is set down for them in a play text. And as if to demonstrate that point the Gravedigger did indeed launch into a non-textual but semi-scripted modern English digression when he first appeared. At Middle Temple Hall, Dickon Tyrrell told a joke about booking a holiday and being asked “Eurostar?” and replying “Well, I’ve played a few seasons on the Globe”. This perhaps approximated to the way that the original clowns in these parts did branch off into their own comic routines.

The battlements of Elsinore were suggested by planks arranged into a V-shape pointing towards the audience. The ground further off where Hamlet first met the Ghost was indicated by the same planks sloping down to the ground from the tops of packing cases.

In another self-referential detail, the travelling players called themselves “Two Planks and a Passion”, which would also have made an apt name for the Globe company.

Despite its basic set, the production managed a coup-de-théâtre during the Mousetrap sequence. After a dumbshow set to a rumba rhythm, a curtain was drawn across the stage from behind which the Claudius and Gertrude (Miranda Foster) changed costumes and emerged as the Player King and Queen to act out their scene. After the repeated references to the remarriage of widows, the curtain was closed once again, only to open moments later to reveal a stony-faced Claudius sitting with Gertrude, the same bench serving sequentially as both Mousetrap stage and Mousetrap audience seating.

But this was followed by an even neater trick; the Player King reclined on his side facing away from the audience as the wicked usurper poured poison in his ear. As the direct parallels with Claudius became very apparent he stormed onto the stage from the front calling for lights. This came as a complete surprise because we had been tricked into thinking John Dougall was still on stage.

In addition to the doubling of their roles, the First Player’s connection with Claudius was also emphasised when the actor recited a speech about the Trojan War, at one point describing how Pyrrhus had tried to strike at Priam, but simply stood “And like a neutral to his will and matter, did nothing.” He spoke that phrase staring fixedly at Hamlet and it was as if Claudius were taunting him with his own inaction.

This Hamlet really did consider that his advice to the players was important. When the Player Queen was on stage, Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) stood just to her side trying in vain to restrain her from sawing the air too much with her hands.

The final scene was notable for two things: it showed Claudius handing the cup he had just poisoned almost absent-mindedly to a servant and Gertrude intercepting it before it had reached safety. Secondly, when Horatio tried to join Hamlet by drinking the dregs of the poison, Hamlet snatched it from him and downed the remainder himself, perhaps in an attempt to ensure there was none left to harm his friend.

In its essential elements the production remained constant across the two venues. But the way the production reacted with these two very dissimilar spaces and their audiences meant that the results were different.

At Middle Temple Hall, Hamlet could not resist directing one of the play’s legal jokes out to the audience where distinguished lawyers in dark suits mingled with the slightly less impressive contingent of Globe diehards, one of whom was wearing a replica football shirt.

“Might this not be the skull of a lawyer?” he quipped with a wry smile full of expectation that this might tickle the toes of the assembled advocates. Not a single titter.

The Globe, however, was a completely different proposition. The touring set seemed a natural fit for the partially covered Southwark stage, and close proximity to a standing audience made for a greater level of interaction.

This reviewer decided to take the opportunity to test the proposition that Hamlet’s “Am I a coward?” soliloquy had been written to provide the actor with an inbuilt comeback to heckling provoked by that supposedly rhetorical question. Shared light and the informality of standing in the yard in front of a thrust stage militate in favour of audience participation.

Naeem Hayat crouched close to the ground on the stage right side of the base of the triangular promontory, as he addressed part of his soliloquy to some groundlings directly in front of him. I had a clear view of him from my position where the promontory joined the main stage on the opposite, stage left side.

He calmly asked “Am I a coward?” and left a slight pause of the kind that rhetorical questions require. Mirroring his behaviour I looked straight ahead and snapped “Yes”. He whipped his head round and fixed his fiery gaze on me.

Pausing long enough to position himself with his face a few inches from mine, he launched into the text’s scripted response “Who calls me villain? etc.” His eyes were a mixture of Hamlet’s fury and the actor’s delight at the challenge. I met his gaze, caring little about the flecks of spit on my glasses and steeling myself against the onslaught with the knowledge that however combative he was now, in a few seconds Hamlet was going to concede that I had a point.

“’Swounds, I should take it…” he admitted and began to recoil, almost taken aback that the tramline of the text required him to back away from his tormenter.

The fact that this exchange began when the actor was already engaged with other groundlings, almost having a conversation with them, underlines how readily the Globe promotes this kind of engagement.

Conclusions

The production felt incredibly fresh, as if a ‘new’ play text had been given to a touring company to see what they could do with it. Stripping the Hamlet monster of the expectations generated by 400 years of tradition was liberating.

The frequent use of Q1 text hinted at the economies of touring versions of plays.

Audiences around the world might be surprised at the rustic simplicity of the production, but they will be getting something profoundly authentic.

Love and madness

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Barbican, 12 April 2014

A bedroom with dark red walls; a bed with red sheets and red duvet cover; television and film posters for works such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries: into this blood-themed world stepped a young woman who lounged on her bed and did normal stuff like play CDs and check her laptop.

As if to reinforce the idea that this Cheek By Jowl production was going to be giving John Ford’s Caroline era play a thoroughly modern makeover, the performance began with a dance routine set to a pumping soundtrack.

The modernity of the setting, the dancing and the apparent ordinariness of the young woman were starkly at odds with the archaic language of the play’s title. Only that title and the dark red colour scheme suggested the murky depths to which the story would descend.

Everything that happened to Annabella would happen in this room, which was firmly established as a normal young woman’s bedroom.

The first scene, in which the Friar (Raphael Sowole) castigated Giovanni (Orlando James) for “the leprosy of lust that rots thy soul” had Giovanni play with Annabella (Eve Ponsonby) on her bed, half attending to the Friar while teasing his sister. The fun the siblings were having created sympathy for them within the world of the play, to the extent that the Friar looked like a mardy spoilsport. In the early scenes of the play Giovanni was always in close proximity to Annabella, which underscored his connection to her.

Many of the play’s subplots and minor characters were expunged to focus attention on the tragic trajectory of the doomed couple.

The bed served as the “above” from which Annabella and Puttana (Nicola Sanderson) observed Giovanni, who instead of wandering the stage below a balcony, here lay reading a book at the side of the bed (1.2). This strange staging made perfect sense if the bed was understood to represent Annabella’s territory on which she could relax, play with her brother, and from which she could observe events in the outside world.

It was significant therefore that the first really sinister turn of events began when Giovanni was with Annabella at the dressing table set far away from her bed, set right at the edge of the performance space stage right. It was here that playfulness was replaced by Giovanni’s unhealthy admiration of his sister’s beauty: she looked at herself in the mirror and her brother described his reaction to her beauty, putting his arms around her to make the point obvious.

When he finally declared his incestuous love for her, he did so offering her a dagger to cut out his heart: “there shalt thou behold a heart in which is writ the truth I speak”.

Annabella looked scared both of the dagger and of her brother. The violent impetuosity of his gesture was an intimidating act of force that made Annabella’s subsequent acquiescence appear the possible result of duress.

Both siblings stripped and made out on her bed and a Chorus of other actors stood in the shadows nearby whispering ominously.

The couple even remained together on the floor during 1.3 while above them their father Florio (David Collings) spoke with Donado (Ryan Ellsworth), the uncle of a suitor for Annabella’s hand.

At the start of act two, Giovanni left Annabella for the first time since the start of the performance.

Puttana examined Annabella as she remarked “what a paradise of joy you have passed under” and fetched a pregnancy test, which would reveal that Annabella was expecting.

Hippolita’s (Ruth Everett) hyperdramatic accusations that Soranzo had wronged her turned to comedy when she began to cry like a child and was comforted by Soranzo’s servant Vasquez (Will Alexander) (2.2).

Vasquez picked her up and cradled her as she wailed. He placed her on the bed and gently massaged her back. Her cries of despair gradually and comically turned into moans of pleasure as she began to enjoy the experience. She deftly positioned herself on top of Vasquez and proceeded to seduce him, eventually promising to marry him if he served her faithfully.

Giovanni used specious reasoning to justify his relationship with Annabella to the Friar (2.5). Its obvious falsity made him a morally compromised figure. But when Annabella brushed off suitor Soranzo’s (Maximilien Seweryn) advances (3.2), with Giovanni watching from the side, it was difficult not to support Annabella’s decision and by implication her involvement with her sibling.

Annabella fell sick and her maid Puttana told Giovanni that she was pregnant (3.3). A Doctor (Peter Moreton) visited and examined her water, while Florio hastened to marry her to Soranzo (3.4), the betrothal going ahead after the Friar had chastened Annabella with visions of divine punishment (3.6).

Meanwhile, Hippolita ordered Vasquez to kill Soranzo and dressed for the wedding banquet (3.8).

At the wedding reception Hippolita wore a face mask, and sang for the guests in a side room behind the main stage, before returning to the main stage (4.1). She asked Vasquez for wine, which he supplied. But he denied the same wine to Soranzo, explaining that he had poisoned the wine to kill Hippolita, despite her intention to marry him. Hippolita proceeded to die with all the noise and spectacle of her boisterous character.

The following scene 4.2 was cut so that 4.1 merged seamlessly with 4.3, which began with Soranzo’s denouncement “Famous whore”. At first these words seemed to be directed at Hippolita, which in view of her failed plot to kill him would seem reasonable. But then Soranzo turned his anger on Annabella. Somehow he had found out about her pregnancy and things were about to turn gruesome.

Soranzo groped at Annabella’s “corrupted, bastard-bearing womb” and then tried to abort the baby by dragging her off into the bathroom and procuring a bent coat hanger to use as a crude surgical instrument. As both were obscured from sight, the only indication of what was happening was Annabella’s screams. Yet again, Annabella’s defence of herself and by implication Giovanni’s incestuous fathering of her child, appeared reasonable compared with Soranzo’s callous desire to kill the unborn child.

Vasquez’s moderating influence made Soranzo calm down and forgive her. But the two men still did not know who the father of the child was. But an opportunity immediately presented itself.

Vasquez got to work on Puttana as she tidied up Annabella’s clothes. He seduced her, tempted her with the services of a male stripper who stood in for the text’s banditti. His mercenary treatment of Puttana showed Vasquez to be someone who was both exploited by others and an exploiter in his own right.

There was a party of sorts with the stripper. The three sang and danced on the bed, all of which was intended to get Puttana to divulge the paternity of Annabella’s child. Puttana got into the swing of things and spilt the beans, half-singing the answer to the key question, revealing that her mistress had been made pregnant “’Twas even no worse than her own brother.” The others recoiled, while she comically carried on dancing. Retribution was swift: the stripper cut out Puttana’s tongue and dragged her off to the bathroom, yet again the location of bloody horror, in order to blind her.

The focus returned to Annabella at the start of 5.1. She sat forlorn at the foot of her bed and bid “pleasures farewell…” not in soliloquy, but with the rest of the cast surrounding her at a distance. The Friar was delighted to hear her repent her relationship with Giovanni.

Soranzo was now in a celebratory mood and organised a birthday bash, sending Vasquez to invite Giovanni (5.2). Vasquez found a still unrepentant Giovanni just after he had heard from Annabella that their secret had been discovered. He was very keen to attend (5.3).

Once at the party, Giovanni sought out Annabella in her bedroom (5.5). They kissed passionately on her bed, but lust turned to violence as Giovanni snapped her neck and carried her away. Instead of the text’s lingering death from a stabbing, with an opportunity to say her farewells, she went out like a light.

The performance entered its final scene with the guests gathered for the party (5.6). The mingling revellers initially obscured Giovanni, but they suddenly parted to reveal him naked from the waist up with his back to the audience. He turned round so that we could see that he was covered in blood and clutching in his hands the heart that he had cut out.

He climbed onto the bed and in a dimly and ominously lit tableau acted out how he had “enjoyed sweet Annabella’s sheets”. The door of the bathroom had been left open and its walls were blood-splattered. There was no further killing, sometimes these repetitive revenge killings can come across as comic in performance, so the focus of the final moments was fixed on Giovanni as Annabella appeared through a rear door, stood behind her wretched brother and reached out to him.

Conclusions

The play was remarkable for the way in which it generated sympathy for at least one of the participants in an incestuous relationship.

But women in the play, like Hippolita and Puttana, were shown to be the victims of deception. With Giovanni characterised as impetuous, self-centred and ultimately callous and murderous, it was possible to see Annabella as a similar dupe, even to the point of not fully knowing herself.

Giovanni’s final act put paid to the lie of their romance: murdering Annabella proved that he did not love her.

 

The Late Innovation

The Malcontent, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 6 April 2014

Background

The Globe established a children’s theatre company at its new candlelit Jacobean theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in order to explore the repertoire of plays written for the boys’ companies of the Shakespearean era.

The Globe Young Players, boys and girls aged between 12 and 16, were chosen by a lengthy process of elimination in which an initial group of around 1000 were whittled down to a final company of 20. They were introduced to the wider world by Dominic Dromgoole at the end of the final 2013 Globe performance on 13 October.

Echoes of boys’ company performance could be heard in another of the Playhouse’s opening season productions, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Although the cast were all adults, lines such as Citizen’s comment “The childer are pretty childer” hinted that the original conditions were not being fully replicated. The Globe Young Players company was therefore a very necessary part of the overall Playhouse project.

Performance

The pre-show saw the actors confidently fill the stage and silently meet the collective gaze of the audience. Both boys and girls wore breeches and white smocks, which was a subtle reminder of the original performance by a single-sex boys’ company.

They launched into an opening song, an arrangement of Walter Raleigh’s On The Life of Man:

What is our life? a play of passion,
Our mirth the musicke of division,
Our mothers wombes the tyring houses be,
When we are drest for this short Comedy,
Heaven the Judicious sharpe spector is,
That sits and markes still who doth act amisse,
Our graves that hide us from the searching Sun,
Are like drawne curtaynes when the play is done,
Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Onely we dye in earnest, that’s no Jest.

During this meditation on the connection between life and theatre, the boy actor playing Emilia (Benjamin Clarke) stood forward and was costumed in a woman’s dress. This was another direct echo of early modern all-male performance, serving to highlight its artificiality. The Globe Young Players had boys playing women, and also girls playing male characters, most notably the Fool.

The Prologue (Danish Sajjad) cautioned that “Immodest censure now grows wild” and then pointed back at the cast, identifying them as the personified “Innocence” that was “defiled with too nice-brainèd cunning”, in effect a coded appeal not to judge them too harshly.

And so on with the action of the play, in which the deposed ruler Duke Altofronto (Joseph Marshall) lurked in his own court disguised as the malcontent Malevole, observing the iniquities of the new order and plotting the downfall of the bad guys in the form of the usurper Duke Pietro (Ben Lynn) and sneaky Mendoza (Guy Amos), who in addition to being a Machiavel was also after Altofronto’s wife Maria (Amanda Shodeko).

Watching this children’s company performance set in motion a process of adjustment similar to that which occurs when watching all-male theatre company Propeller.

Audiences are accustomed to seeing children on the stage, and in early modern plays, but exclusively in age-appropriate roles, usually as the children of the main adult characters. So the first few minutes felt disconcerting, with an acute awareness that adult characters were being played by children. But once this initial barrier was overcome, it was possible to buy into the performance completely.

In theatre, everything is unreal and therefore anything is possible. Far from being an insurmountable obstacle to the enjoyment of the play, the children’s performance added an extra layer of pretence that heightened its theatricality.

The character of Malevole exuded a world-weary sarcasm, but was played here by a comparatively young boy. Not surprisingly, and indeed rather gratifyingly, the actor did not have within him an experience of worldly bitterness that could be drawn on to make the portrayal of Malevole utterly convincing.

Some critics noted this as a fault, but it was equally possible that this quite predictable aspect of children’s performance was a facet of the original practice and the deliberate intention behind this mode of performance.

Malevole’s childish insults came across as very childish, in other words ideally suited for delivery by a child. Sequential insults like “… old ox, egregious wittol, broken-bellied coward, rotten mummy” delivered by an adult actor would sound very strange, but the same line in the mouth of a child suddenly became entirely appropriate, with the style of language fitting very neatly with the age of the actor.

This legitimising of youthful playfulness was turned to advantage in 3.2 when Malevole taunted Bilioso (Alexander Clarke): the malcontent stood directly behind Bilioso and spoke over his shoulder, first into one ear and then into the other, bobbing alternately from side to side of Bilioso’s head with each new word or phrase, to wonderfully comic effect.

The cast displayed a great deal of professionalism. At one point a chess piece fell from its board and tumbled down into the pit. It was retrieved in two stages: one of the cast waited until they were not required to speak and stood near to it, gesturing at an audience member to pick it up, then a second actor beckoned to be given it once the play’s action had moved to the other side of the stage.

Perhaps one of the most impressive performances was provided by Guy Amos when his character Mendoza had a soliloquy in 1.5. To be completely alone on the stage and to hold an audience single-handed for an extensive soliloquy without backup from other actors is a daunting prospect, even for experienced adult performers. But the way in which he owned the stage and accompanied his comments on women in general with audacious flirting with a particular woman on the front row of the pit was breathtaking to watch. He succeeded brilliantly.

In the next scene (1.6) Mendoza had a spat with Duke Pietro’s wife, Aurelia (Martha Lily Dean), which culminating in another scene-concluding soliloquy. The text’s initial one-word question “Women?” became in performance an eye-rolling expression of sarcastic disdain.

His subsequent condemnation of “these monsters in nature” brought out the humour of having a child actor behaving in a manner beyond his years. But crucially the actor was also aware of this dichotomy and consequently it was possible to laugh with him and not at him.

One character that we could legitimately laugh at was the bawd Maquerelle, played by one of the older boys (Sam Hird). The ribald comedy inherent in the role was enhanced by the fact that this pantomime dame figure appeared to be one foot higher than the two shorter female characters with whom she habitually appeared, making Maquerelle seem all the more monstrous.

The portrayal of Maquerelle and Emilia by boys highlighted two possible results of this practice: sometimes the boys were so young that the gender swap was not noticeable, but is also possible for the discrepancy to be so noticeable that it became comic.

This production’s use of a girl to play the fool Passerello (Freya Parks) introduced some interesting moments: the line “oh that I had been gelded” was thought-provoking when delivered by a girl; the occasion when she played the lute, brandishing it deliberately phallically demonstrated the opposite concept.

But the children’s performance went far beyond simply playing on the gap between their ages and the age of their characters. The performance had genuinely touching moments.

The first of these was the sight of the young Ferneze (Ed Easton) deeply in love with Aurelia. Then in 3.3, Joseph Marshall’s Malevole heard Mendoza speak of his plans for the disguised Duke’s wife, his delivery the heart-rending line “Do you love Maria?” effectively conveyed the convoluted thoughts of a man who realised that he might lose his wife, but wanted some reassurance that the man stealing Maria from him had at least some genuine affection for her.

There was one point where the sheer cuteness of the children’s company created a real moment of theatrical magic. After the interval there was a scene (3.4) that included the song What Hap Had I to Marry a Shrow which was sung as a round by some of the younger actors. What would have been received as a nasty piece of Elizabethan misogyny if presented by adults, became here a thing of beauty when sung by children.

Continuing the Playhouse’s experimentation with the use of candlelight to produce theatrical effects, the staging of this production had several occasions where the impact of the sequence was enhanced by the use of portable candles.

At the beginning of 4.5 there was a moving sequence as Aurelia was going off to banishment on the orders of the new duke Mendoza. The newly repentant Aurelia, who had cuckolded her husband, realised the error of succumbing to Mendoza because he was interested solely in power and not in her.

She wore a long white dress and held a single candle in her hand, all of which indicated a combination of virtue and vulnerability. The youth of the actor made Aurelia’s situation all the more pitiable, and when she ended her sequence by blowing out her candle, signifying the extinguishing of the light and hope it represented, the effect was very powerful.

The production had other moments at which actors blew out candles at the end of potent speeches, such as when Mendoza had an entire short scene in soliloquy (2.1) after Ferneze entered Aurelia’s room and straight into the trap that Mendoza had set for him. After expounding on his vengeful villainy, he blew out his handheld candle as an atmospheric full stop to the scene.

More generally lighting was used to suggest particularly dark moments. The chandeliers were hoisted up to create sombre twilight as the ambush of Ferneze was prepared. The shutters were opened to let in artificial daylight at the start of act three, reinforcing Pietro’s line “’Tis grown to youth of day; how shall we waste this light?” before his party set off hunting.

The play also contained a reference to candle maintenance, which in the Playhouse felt particularly congruous. In 3.3 Malevole described Mendoza as being “like a pair of snuffers: snibs filth in other men and retains it in himself”.

The painted ceiling of the Playhouse with its figure of the mythological Luna served as a chart at which Maquerelle could point as she commented on how the wives of various tradesman became “sociable” and “tractable” in the right astrological conditions.

Mendoza eventually got his comeuppance. The ever-loyal Maria refused to marry him and at the party to celebrate his installation as Duke, he was contemptuously thrown to the ground and surrounded by the good guys who trained pistols on him. Duke Altofronto threw off his Malevole disguise and revealed his true identity to a chorus of comical surprise. Bilioso, channelling the spirit of Falstaff, claimed to have known that Malevole was in fact the Duke all along. The ending was happy, with even the dispatch of Maquerelle “unto the suburbs” provoking audience mirth.

Conclusions

“You can’t expect children to act in a play like that”, said a grumpy man who left at the interval of one performance. He was, of course, wrong in so many ways. Looking aside from his basic error – the play was written specifically to be performed by children – the company in fact succeeded brilliantly in becoming a coherent and incredibly well-rehearsed team with a high standard of performance. It is easy to quote examples of allegedly professional productions of much poorer quality, in some instances where the cast had not even afforded the audience the courtesy of learning their lines properly.

Performance by children in the adult roles is wondrous strange, and therefore as a stranger we should bid it welcome.

The recreation of this mode of performance in an authentic indoor playhouse is an experiment and consequently audiences should have an open mind about the results. In particular, what might appear at first to be faults could actually be integral features of the genre, and its oddities the deliberately engineered effects that original audiences expected and appreciated.

The Globe Young Players will return in April 2015 to perform Dido, Queen of Carthage. This is excellent news, marred only by the fact that the production run has been halved from The Malcontent’s 12 performances to just six.

Rafe’s Got Talent

The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 1 March 2014

The production announced its comic credentials right at the start by turning the lighting of the playhouse candles into an extensive slapstick routine.

The characters Tim (Dennis Herdman) and George (Dean Nolan) began the performance as stage hands. Tim shouted a cry of command to an unseen backstage colleague to request that a candelabra be lowered; it descended as required and was successfully lit. He then fixed his gaze on another candelabra and shouted once more, but this time a different candelabra behind him was lowered to the floor instead. George discovered this and went to investigate, whereupon the candelabra was raised out of reach. But a short while after, it descended slowly all the way down pinning George to the ground.

Tim turned to speak to George with his back extremely close to a lowered, fully lit candelabra and smoke began to issue from his breeches. After what felt like an age, he eventually whelped with the pain and smothered the incipient fire.

The sconces were also lit by tapers, which involved the stage hands clumsily straddling the balustrades to reach them, with big George sometimes losing his balance and toppling over into the audience.

The Citizen (Phil Daniels), his Wife (Pauline McLynn) and Rafe (Matthew Needham) entered through the pit aisle, dressed like other cast members in period costume (Induction). Wife commented on the decoration of the playhouse and they all took their places on the first row of stage left pit seats . Wife had a programme for The London Merchant consisting of small sheets of paper tied together with string with the play title calligraphied on the cover. She also carried a paper bag containing red grapes.

A sign or “title” was presented announcing the beginning of The London Merchant after which the Prologue (Brendan O’Hea) began to speak.

Citizen stood up and faced towards the rest of the audience as he interrupted, objecting to the staging of yet another play that had “girds at citizens”. He encouraged the rest of the audience to support him, which immediately implicated and involved us in his rebellion against The London Merchant.

The first “joke” came unwittingly when, in a performance taking place about seven weeks after the opening of this new theatre, the Citizen gravely pronounced: “This seven years there hath been plays at this house, I have observed it…”

He looked at the audience, hoping that we would support his request for the company to “present something notably in honour of the commons of the city” and went up onto the stage (rather than already being seated there amongst others, as in the original stage directions). When he proposed that the hero of the story should be a grocer, his Wife stood and suggested: “Let him kill a lion with a pestle” before clambering with some assistance onto the stage via its waist-high front.

Wife suggested that Rafe play the new part and there were cheers for him when he joined them. In a test of his acting abilities, Rafe spoke some lines he remembered from his amateur dramatics, while Wife stood next to him making arm movements that he imitated to add expression to his recitation. Unimpressed by his halting delivery, Jasper (Alex Waldmann) and Luce (Sarah MacRae) of the company shook their heads and walked away in disgust. Citizen offered to pay for all the additional costs of this new production, including the musicians. But he mispronounced shawms as “swarms” creating a malapropism not in the original text.

The text’s reference to the couple sitting on stools was cut as they both eventually went to sit back in their pit seats. This worked to the production’s advantage as in this location they remained firmly rooted in the main body of the audience, which gave added bite to their constant intrusions.

With the new show dubbed The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the prologue was repeated with its musical accompaniment. But at the end the music stopped and the Prologue curtly told Citizen and Wife that they would have to take care of Rafe’s part themselves.

With a modicum of order restored, the play proper began its first scene between the Merchant (John Dougall) and Jasper (Act 1). The initial exposition of Jasper’s thwarted desire to marry the Merchant’s daughter Luce was disrupted by Wife loudly rustling a paper bag, and the actors gave the citizen couple angry looks. In addition to rustling the bag while eating and sharing the grapes with her own party, Wife handed the bag round to those behind her and then crossed the aisle to offer grapes to people on the other side.

Increasingly annoyed and provoked, Jasper directed his line “I cannot STOP IT” with its altered emphasis directed at the citizens.

This distraction continued and affected Luce and Jasper, who cast them angry glances. As if to rub salt on the wound, when Luce made a feeble joke saying that she loved Jasper’s rival for her affection “even as I love an ague or foul weather..”, Wife laughed raucously. Jasper and Luce gave the couple more dirty looks as they exited.

The Merchant appeared with Luce’s suitor Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell), who wore a light-coloured outfit which, together with his effete manner, suggested that he was unsuited to Luce. As Humphrey made his grand entrance, he coolly but bluntly ordered the others trying to exit to “walk round me”. The audience was at liberty to decide whether this self-importance resided in the character of Humphrey or in the actor playing him.

Wife’s comment about Humphrey “didst thou ever see a prettier child?” kept the text’s reference to the children’s company that originally performed the play. But in this production the remark was taken by Humphrey to be flirting and he waved back. This worked in performance because vain Humphrey seemed to relish the attention.

The sequence between Luce and Humphrey was characterised by delicious overacting and Humphrey’s stilted delivery of deliberately awful rhyming couplets, which made their clunkiness a source of comedy. He paused as he announced that he was pulling “a pair of…” from his pocket, rummaging around near his codpiece before finally producing an innocuous “pair of… gloves”.

Luce convinced Humphrey that he had to steal her away in order to marry her. This led into the joke about Humphrey’s horse being “somewhat blind” and his concluding lascivious remark about Luce being “so trim”.

Citizen and Wife announced that they liked Humphrey, while Wife’s comment about stinking tobacco was cut as the characters, like everyone else in the playhouse, were not smoking.

In his first appearance as an actor, Rafe was accompanied by Tim and George. All three wore blue grocers’ aprons, while Tim carried a broom. Tim was visibly unhappy about being recruited to serve as one of Rafe’s apprentices and was thrust out onto the stage by the much keener George. In addition to chivvying Tim along, George would go on to distinguish himself as the more inventive and accomplished performer of the pair.

Rafe read falteringly from a book, but eventually closed it and spoke very eloquently in his own words about the adventure it contained. This showed his critical intelligence, a spark of wit that the process of performance would kindle.

Rafe compared the chivalry of the story to his coarse contemporary world, in which people would be labelled “son of a whore” and “damned bitch”, addressing those terms to audience members. But he checked that the woman he jokingly insulted was okay afterwards.

The sequence became very moving between 1.248-53 when Rafe asked why anyone would be content to sit in a shop all day when they could go off and have adventures. This positioned him as the classic figure of the ordinary guy who gets lucky.

As Rafe made Tim and George into his followers, there was laughter at big George being labelled “little dwarf”. Beginning with Rafe, they all cast off their blue aprons.

Instead of Rafe saying “my elder prentice Tim…”, he said “my elder prentice?” as if asking for a name, to which the actor replied “Tim”. But when Rafe addressed him directly again, he got the name wrong, addressing him as “Tom”. The actor corrected him and followed his correction with “anon”. This change from the original was necessary because in this staging the “apprentices” were not known to Rafe beforehand.

Tim shrugged off Rafe’s hand as he placed it encouragingly on his shoulder. Rafe went to the side of the stage and knelt, a finger placed quizzically near his mouth, to ask Tim how he would enquire about the intents of an errant knight, adopting the stylised manner of a theatre director calling on an actor to improvise in a rehearsal. Tim had a go, but could only stutter out a few uninspired words. Rafe showed him how to do it properly using the flowing and poetic language of chivalry, while Wife and Citizen castigated Tim’s ineptitude. Rafe had demonstrated that he possessed unusually refined improvisational skills.

On the other hand, George got right into the spirit of things. Literally seizing his opportunity, he snatched Tim’s broom and swung it behind his back in a ninja pose to exclaim “Right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle” and then went into the pit to comfort a “distressed damsel” getting her to put her hand to her forehead to signify her distress.

Jasper entered and pushed Rafe aside, stamping his foot forcefully as The London Merchant cast reasserted their control over the stage. Mistress Merrythought (Hannah McPake) shunned Jasper and gave her blessing to her goody-goody son Michael (Giles Cooper).

Wife and Citizen initially agreed that Jasper was a bad character, but later fell out over him: Mistress Merrythought said that Jasper had run away, but Wife contradicted her, explaining that we had seen his master reject him about half an hour ago on this very spot. Citizen accused Wife of being soft and taking Jasper’s side.

All the Merrythoughts apart from Jasper had red wigs. Merrythought (Paul Rider) wore a green doublet/hose outfit that matched the green garments of the other Merrythoughts.

Merrythought gave Jasper his share of the estate and counted out the measly 10 shillings as a rising scale played on a lute with each coin. Merrythought said farewell to Jasper who made to leave, but was called back by his father’s singing. Jasper paused in the doorway posing with his hands on the doorposts before returning to rub Merrythought’s stomach in a circular motion and give him a tankard of drink in a touching display of filial affection. Dismissed once again, Jasper tried to tell his father something but was cut short.

There was a brief interval during which the Boy (Samuel Hargreaves) danced. There were breaks every 30 minutes at end of each act with a longer privy break of 15 minutes between acts 3 and 4. In many cases there was something to see during the interval as the play provided comic interludes during the act breaks.

Humphrey explained that in order to marry Luce, he had to carry her away (Act 2). The candelabras were hoisted up, but at uneven heights with the highest upstage, to represent the gloom of Waltham Forest.

The initial exchanges in the scene between Citizen and Wife were spoken very loudly and over the top of the actors playing the Merchant and Humphrey rather than slotted between them. The actors once again grew extremely irritated with their bad behaviour: the Merchant directed “tell me WHY” at them and shouted the phrase “not here” as a complaint that their jabbering meant that the audience could “NOT HEAR”. Humphrey turned his aside “Help me, oh Muses nine” into a desperate plea for them to stop. Finally the Merchant descended into the pit and snatched the bag of grapes from the couple. At the end of the sequence, Humphrey cried out “My best speech: ruined!” as he exited.

Mistress Merrythought and Michael found themselves in the forest with her jewel casket. They sat as she showed the contents of the box to Michael, leaving a necklace protruding when she closed the lid and put it down.

Perilous

Citizen and Wife called for Rafe to appear. He made his entrance wearing a hobby horse, together with Tim and George. The thunder board was used to strike a chilling note when George said they were in the “perilous Waltham Down”. The trio scared away Mistress Merrythought and Michael, who fled abandoning their jewel casket downstage centre.

Tim was carrying a large backpack containing all the luggage. The sequence contained a running gag in which Rafe repeatedly brandished his sword so close to Tim that he lost his balance and fell backwards.

George praised Rafe again as the “Mirror of knighthood…” Rafe took off his hobby horse and knelt downstage to vow service to the distressed people who had just fled. As he referred to his ancestor Amadis de Gaul and his sword Brionella, George sang an accompaniment echoing those phrases, and picked up on his lines rephrasing them into a theme song about how Rafe would never end “the quest of this fair lady and this forsaken squire, till by his valour he gains their liberty”. Towards the end of the song he shouted at a volume that made Rafe recoil.

Utilising a specifically non-Jacobean special effect, George opened a casket containing the emblematic burning pestle, which glowed brightly within.

The unfortunate Jasper spoke of his despair, accompanying his speech with clumsy miming of its visual imagery: he indicated a circle to illustrate Fortune’s “desperate wheel”, as well as hand gestures for “climb” and “stand”. He pretended not to see the casket but then stared at it, mulling how as an actor to “discover” it. Jasper ended up sitting on the casket in a very unconvincing but very funny spoof of stage convention. Bashing his hand down onto the box on each syllable, he despaired that he was “only rich in misery”.

Jasper threw the 10 shillings pittance his father had given him into the pit. Turning to go, he accidentally-on-purpose kicked the casket, which allowed him to officially discover it. With an expression of mock surprise, he exclaimed: “How, illusion!” The pearls that he referred to were already draped over the edge having been left like that by Mistress Merrythought.

Rafe entered through the Pit on a Morris hobby horse together with his party. Mistress Merrythought explained the loss of their jewel casket. Rafe corrected her use of “forest” to “desert”, expressing a tinge of disappointment that the actress was not getting into the mood of the play he was intent on creating.

When Rafe referred to “the beauty of that face” Mistress Merrythought became visibly taken with him, adjusting her hair coquettishly. She stroked his hobby horse’s head turning “more like a giant than a mortal man” into a suggestive joke. Rafe promised to help and offered a lath sword to Michael, making him a knight.

The candelabras were hoisted up and the shutters were opened to create a safe environment for the big fight scene.

Would-be eloper Humphrey tried to carry Luce, but was not strong enough and had to put her down saying “or, if it please you, walk…” to comic effect.

Jasper entered and fought with his rival Humphrey, kicking him down into the pit. Wife predictably took Humphrey’s side, clutching his head into her bosom enabling her to see the “peppernel in’s head”. During this exchange, Citizen varied his pronunciation so that he said “You’re too bitter, cunny” not “cony” as he pronounced the word on all other occasions.

Citizen asserted himself and demanded that Rafe fight with Jasper. The Boy protested that it would spoil their play, but Citizen threatened to “make your house too hot for you else”.

Rafe, his crew and the Merrythoughts discovered Humphrey and huddled together in fright as they pointed their swords at him with paranoid suspicion. But after Humphrey had complained to Rafe about Jasper stealing his wife, it was the newly arrived Jasper who found himself under attack. Tim confronted Jasper, but he just jabbed his finger at Tim and sent him flying backwards, knocking Rafe and George over.

A big fight ensued between Jasper and Rafe. Jasper bashed Rafe’s head against the frons scenae after which the scrapping pair climbed over the balustrade and out through the stage left Lords Box. They raced round the back of the middle gallery where Jasper beat Rafe’s head against a window and kicked Rafe on the ground, with Rafe retaliating by poking Jasper in the eye. The chase proceeded further, accompanied by the sound of clanking metal as something was knocked over, and some auditorium doorway curtains were ruffled. After a lengthy pause, at the end of which Rafe was summoned, they rushed back in again via the opposite Lords Box.

The fight continued onstage. Tim and George were sent sprawling and hit the Lords Box woodwork, but then recovered and rolled forward at Jasper who repulsed them. George grabbed the magic pestle from its box, but was disarmed by Jasper, who used it to hit Rafe repeatedly over the head. He triumphantly dismissed Rafe mocking his London accent when pronouncing “Golden Pestle” before departing with Luce.

Mistress Merrythought said she was tired, Michael said he was hungry. Demoralised Rafe did not know how to respond until the box was opened to show the glowing pestle within. The sight of this rallied Rafe, who said he would bring the Merrythoughts to the safety of a castle.

There was an excellent set piece joke with Wife explaining how Rafe had comforted her about her missing child by saying “I’ll get you another as good”.

George broke into song to inform Rafe and the others about the hospitality on offer from Tapstero and Chamberlino, dancing and singing that there was “plenty of food”, highkicking at “stretched his buttered hams”. Rafe asked Tim to knock at the gates “with stately lance” which George repeated in song, continuing in his comic choral function. Brendan O’Hea’s Host (his character merged with the Tapster) appeared with a knife under his belt and wearing an ominous eye patch as he leant against the doorway offering hospitality. As he turned to follow them inside, the knife he was holding sinisterly behind his back came into view.

After listening to Humphrey’s terrible clasp her/Jasper end rhymes, the Merchant instructed him to intercept the runaways, before setting off to meet Jasper’s father.

Merrythought explained his philosophy of life with a thought-provoking anecdote about a glum man he had once seen who shortly after had been executed and his head displayed on London Bridge. He sang and dance accompanied by the Boy, as both of them mimed riding horses, feeding them and then dismounting.

The old man was unconcerned that his son had run off with the Merchant’s daughter. Had both his sons been condemned to hang, he would have simply cried “Down, down, down they fall”. He crouched to emphasise this, encouraging the Merchant to do the same. For this slight, the Merchant vowed to kill Jasper.

Another act interval came which replaced the text’s excellent “Rafe and Lucrece” joke with something completely different. The Citizen got the band to play the Globe standard “Cuckolds all a row” instead of “Lachrimae”. Leaves were showered down onto the Boy, who singled out Wife and turned the song lyrics into a derogatory comment about her. The stage crew also took their revenge on Citizen by sweeping the leaves on the stage into a neat pile and then brusquely brushing them onto him in the pit.

Reunited at last, Jasper and Luce had some together time (Act 3). But for some reason Jasper (or rather the actor playing him) detected that Luce (or rather the actress playing her) was overly amorous towards him. Jasper rolled his eyes as she tried to embrace him. He resolved the problem by clasping her so close that her head was forced over his shoulder so that she could not kiss him.

They sang a corny song “What is love” with equally corny movements, facing the audience cheek to cheek as they intoned about love’s “arrow”.

Luce fell asleep improbably fast. Jasper laid her down and ran his fingers clumsily over her face and down onto her chest. In a fine display of bad acting, Jasper pondered the nature of their love and put his foot up clumsily on a ledge in the frons scenae. He decided to test the genuineness of her affection by draw his blade on her in feigned contempt.

Wife completely overreacted as if the threat to Luce were real. She shrieked loudly, calling for the watch. Jasper was irritated by the disturbance and pointed his dagger at her, which shut her up. She withdrew to the aisle and hid her face against the side of the seating block until the sequence was over.

Jasper and Luce were seized on by the Merchant, Humphrey and masked men with torches made of bundled candles. Jasper crawled back onstage and was left behind to rue Luce’s capture. He forgot his lines and the yellow prompt book was thrown onstage from inside the tiring house. After consulting it, he continued at “Oh, me unhappy”. On exiting at the end of the sequence, he patted his hands together in a comically self-important attempt at prompting the audience to applaud him.

Having asked “Is ’a gone, George”, Wife realised it was safe to look up. Citizen hugged and comforted his wife after her shock in a touching moment that humanised them and made them more than simply comic devices.

Rafe and company emerged from the tiring house and the Host sat on a stool sharpening the edge of his sword, evilly running his finger along the keen blade, reminding Rafe that he had to pay the bill. Rafe used elegant chivalric language to try to get a freebie. When the Host threatened to “cap” Rafe, Citizen rushed up on to the stage to protect him and then paid the 12 shillings. The Host was very surprised to receive actual money and perhaps the actor playing him realised that here was an opportunity to cash in.

Wife proudly emphasised that “Rafe has friends…” On hearing that Michael had chilblains, she got up on stage to dispense advice, with incredibly funny insouciance that this was merely the world of the play.

Mistress Merrythought said goodbye to Rafe by snatching a kiss from him, while Michael handed back the sword he had been given.

Rafe asked if there were any further adventures. The Tapster pushed up his eye patch and sent message to the Nick the barber, before launching into an extended description of the monstrous Barbarossa. He sat Rafe on his stool which represented Barbarossa’s “enchanted chair” and mimed combing Rafe’s hair and applying soap to his face, finally holding Rafe’s shield like a mirror to show him the back of his head. Rafe had his own comic moment as he tried to rhyme “soul” with “foul” as the text required.

Mistress Merrythought came on but Citizen told her to go off as she was interrupting the new plot. The Boy complained that they were spoiling the company’s play. A dispute arose over the plot with the Boy attempting to get us to support him by saying “I pray, gentlemen, rule him”. Wife called the Boy back and kissed him long and hard before complaining that he might possibly have worms.

Bellows

As the brave knight approached Barbarossa’s lair, the candelabras were flown up and the thunder board rumbled. Tim puffed smoke in Rafe’s face from his special effect bellows. Rafe grew tired of the smoke and eventually pointed the bellows nozzle aside.

A gong was struck and the battle with Barbarossa began. Brendan O’Hea appeared on stilts wearing a long bloodied smock in a barber’s pole pattern, each hand festooned with cutting implements like an open Swiss penknife. Barbarossa roared and lashed out at Rafe with his bladed hands. Rafe fought back bravely, but Barbarossa snapped off a plank from the tiring house and hit him over the head. The Boy was kicked down into the pit in revenge for previous torments. Tim was flown down on a modern harness and tried to join in. Rafe eventually triumphed by cutting into the monster’s side with his sword, which he then raised in victory only to poke it into Tim. The Barber pleaded for mercy and Rafe poised on the brink of finishing him off, jabbing his sword down towards him several times, before finally showing mercy.

The long sequence in which Barbarossa’s prisoners are released was cut, the comedy deriving instead from Tim calling to be lowered from the ceiling over Citizen and Wife’s dialogue. The defeated Barber was asked to swear on the burning pestle never to do wrong again, but had to be restrained from kissing it.

An interval came at this point, earlier than in the text, a proper “privy break” of 15 minutes. A sign announcing this was handed to Tim who was then hoisted up with it into the heavens. The Boy danced all the while as entertainment.

When the play restarted, Mistress Merrythought returned and this time was allowed to proceed with her scene. She and Michael were back home where they found Merrythought still living it up. He appeared among the audience in the upper gallery and then in the musicians gallery before descending to the stage, accompanied by clone Merrythoughts in long johns, red hair and Green Man-style head adornments.

Wife became annoyed at Merrythought and went up on stage to dress him down. But he ignored this admonition and continued to sing and dance. As he sang “kissed me under the breach” Wife’s face was comically thrust into his backside. Wife returned to her seat and sent Citizen to get some drinks.

Mistress Merrythought’s displeasure at her husband culminated in her swearing “Now a churl’s fart in your teeth”, after which she immediately looked surprised at her own temper. She planned to get Michael a position with the Venturewells. Citizen arrived back with drinks on a tray, including glasses of coloured water for those behind the couple in the pit, a sequence that is placed during the text’s act interval.

Jasper dispatched a letter in connection with his coffin ruse (Act 4). He accompanied his parting soliloquy with some inept mimes, acting out standing fixed, a rolling stone and throwing out an anchor, concluding by thrusting his fist downwards at “men celestial” like a boy band singer.

Citizens asked what Rafe should do next. Wife launched into an extravagant description of the romantic Crakovia scene in which she envisaged Rafe wooing a princess, but ending with the anticlimactic “and then let Rafe… talk with her”. The Boy pointed out that this would be impossible both practically and financially. When the Boy said that it would be unfitting for a king’s daughter to marry a grocer’s apprentice, Citizen looked insulted and the audience audibly anticipated his outraged reaction.

The scene was enacted with its exoticism suggested by having George cool Rafe with a large ostrich feather fan, while Tim appeared up in the musicians gallery dressed as Lady, speaking in a cracked voice. He was under a veil at first, then threw it off to display his bearded face. Each time the Lady asked him a question, Rafe turned to the audience as he answered, which enhanced the heroic posturing of his chivalric replies.

When Rafe saw that ‘she’ was a man, he tried to back out, comically inventing a complaint that she was an adherent of “false traditions”. He also mentioned his true love Susan, which was highly affecting, and gave depth to his character. The cross-dressed Tim got too much into his role and wailed when Rafe passed him over for Susan.

The parting gifts of money were turned into an extensive comic sequence by having Rafe climb half-way up the frons scenae to hand over his small individual donations for services rendered. Tim in turn strained as he leant over the gallery balustrade and reached down to take them. Tim also had some funny extra-textual lines commenting on Rafe’s gifts: “Wish he’d anoint my back”, “It was good butter” and responding to Rafe’s “There’s an English groat” with “Oh, how exotic” and then “last one now” as the sequence drew to a close.

The captured Luce was brought in, held firmly by the neck by the Merchant’s henchman, before being handed over to Humphrey. Mistress Merrythought asked the Merchant to employ her son Michael, but he replied with a fiendishly melodramatic staccato denunciation of the wrongs their family had done him. The letter and coffin procured by Jasper were brought in, together with the tragic announcement that Jasper was dead and contained within.

The playhouse shutters were closed and the candelabras hoisted up, as Luce was left alone with the coffin, lighting herself with a handheld. The actress behind Luce changed her acting style so that it became a very convincing portrayal of her character’s grief, free of her previous hamminess. The mood changed completely to underline the gravity of the moment. Even her lament was sung seriously, which contrasted with the cheesy song she had sung with Jasper.

The sombre and serious mood created by the lengthy sequence in which Luce mourned her dead lover was suddenly and comprehensively trashed when Jasper reared up from the coffin. Having made his surprise entrance, he jumped with both feet clear out of the coffin so that they could kiss properly. Jasper’s hand wandered down to Luce’s bottom, at which point Citizen shouted an admonishing “Oi!” This satisfying kiss reconciled them after she had falsely believed that Jasper had wanted to harm her, and marked movement forward in their story, which afforded dramatic momentum to the underlying play.

To facilitate her escape, Luce hid in the coffin and Merchant had it sent to Merrythought, thinking it still contained Jasper Merrythought. Merrythought appeared and sang paying no heed to the fate of his family. Because he was now at home he wore dirty long johns. The following act interlude was run on continuously from the end of the act.

Wife asked Rafe to dance Morris and he emerged in Morris gear to give a rousing speech about the spirit of London youth. At “Lords and Ladies… disport and play, do kiss…” he encouraged a couple in a Lords Box to kiss, which they did producing a heartfelt ‘ah’ moment. When the selected couple did not comply (as happened on 12 March), Rafe commented “Do kiss… sometimes… upon the grass” working with the text to adapt to that behaviour.

A xylophone playing slow, magical notes, accompanied him from the phrase “And be like them”. As he continued, the rest of the main company began to appear at the tiring house side doors, with Luce popping up on the musicians balcony, all admiring Rafe’s fine emotive performance. This was an indication that the main company were beginning to appreciate his talent. This turning point was necessary because it paved the way for the final scene in which the company were appreciative of the adventure Rafe had experienced, rather than continuing to resent him as an upstart intruder. There followed a short four-minute interval.

Act 5 began with the Boy displaying a specific title “The wedding”. A small dinner table was placed onstage. The Merchant’s preparations for the wedding of Luce and Humphrey were interrupted when the thunder board sounded and the candelabras jiggled up and down as if haunted, all presaging the appearance of Jasper, his face painted white like a ghost. Carrying a handheld candelabra for extra impact, he jumped up onto the dining table in a direct parody of Banquo’s haunting of Macbeth. Jasper intermittently kicked plates and tableware to the ground to punctuate his fearful ghostly embassage: Jasper was indeed dead, Luce had now been spirited away and the Merchant’s only hope was to atone by chasing Humphrey away. Jasper danced with joy at the success of his ruse when the Merchant was not looking and then snapped back into ghost mode with the requisite grimace and gesture when the Merchant turned back again.

Humphrey complained that Luce had gone and, obedient to instructions, the Merchant beat him in the hope of appeasing the ghost. Jasper watched this smugly from the musicians gallery and put out his candles before leaving.

Wife called out to Rafe and instructed him to enact soldiers drilling at Mile End, with gleeful emphasis on the words “kill, kill, kill”. Rafe and his men duly emerged with a St George’s flag and Henry V.

The soldiers marched up and down to the beat of the drum. Rafe instructed a pikeman to charge at him, but the pike simply butted up against Rafe and the pikeman’s hands ran down it without causing any injury. The ribald joke about the stinking hole in Greengoose’s musket fell flat. Rafe said that Greengoose deserved to die for his neglect and the pikeman came forward to offer to do the job but his services were rejected. Rafe’s rousing Henry V-style speech ended with cries of “St George!” Citizen was very impressed with Rafe’s martial prowess.

The coffin was brought to Merrythought and when Jasper sneaked up on him via a side door, he fell against the balustrade in surprise. He half-sang “and where is your true love?” at which Luce was helped out of the coffin. This was followed by a comical new line “and there is your true love”. Jasper rubbed his father’s stomach in reconciliation, requesting that his mother be admitted to the house. Mistress Merrythought and Michael were required to sing a song to be let in, and did so omitting the last few offensive lines.

The Merchant also gained access with a song. Mistress Merrythought and Michael, playing along with the ruse, engaged in mock mourning at Jasper’s supposed death. When he turned away from them, the pair fetched Jasper and Luce. The daughter was introduced to the Merchant first to surprise him.

The Merchant begged forgiveness from Merrythought and was in turn asked to forgive Jasper. He clapped Jasper and Luce’s hands together as they kissed under a shower of confetti, with the Merchant’s “I do, I do” becoming yet another suggestion of a wedding ceremony.

Wife demanded dramatic closure for Rafe in the form of his death. He complied by emerging with a forked arrow through his head. But this comic touch was underscored by a very serious, poignant account of his adventure, punctuated by him pointing at individuals behind him on stage who had played a part in his epic journey.

Rafe fell to the ground at “And now I faint”, but got up again immediately in a spoof of that common theatrical trope. He continued speaking until he fell again at “Farewell…” before rising once more. But at “My pain increaseth” he became seriously ill, leading into a very realistic non-comic death, so that even the apparently comical “fly, fly, my soul, to Grocers’ Hall” became poetic.

He lay dead with open, staring eyes. At this point he was clapped by both Jasper and Luce, who had been the first to walk off during his first recitation on stage at the beginning of the performance. Having gained their approval, his journey from clumsy amateur to consummate professional was now complete. Jasper even helped Rafe to his feet, sealing the bond of respect.

The whole onstage cast grouped together for the final song, rounded off with “Heaven bless the knight” sung by George who was then knighted with the burning pestle by Rafe in recognition of his services. The pestle was left on the stage front as the main cast departed leaving Wife to speak the Epilogue. She invited and received audience applause, after which the entire company gathered on stage for the final curtain calls.

Conclusions

This production proved that, far from being the gloomy preserve of blood-soaked tragedy, the Playhouse can serve as an ideal venue for comedy.

The surprisingly high levels of shared light in the intimate space meant that Citizen and Wife could maintain a close rapport with the audience in a way that would not be possible in a huge barn like the RST or Olivier.

Put another way: we have seen the past and it works.

Putting Rafe’s journey at the heart of the production meant that it provided both anarchic comedy and also a heart-warming story.

The success of the production’s initial run has led to it being scheduled for a revival as the Globe’s 2014/15 Christmas pantomime.

The favourable reception that the play enjoyed makes the infrequency of the play’s performance appear puzzling. Perhaps it just requires the right space.