The Roaring Girl, Swan Stratford, 17 May 2014
Moll Cutpurse (Lisa Dillon) lounged in an ornate chair, one leg hooked casually over the armrest as she smoked a cigarette in insolent rebellion, looking very much the lad in her short hair, faded jeans, white short-sleeved shirt and boots.
She addressed the prologue of the play to the audience, explaining that long-awaited plays create high expectations and that based on the title alone, we might speculate about what type of ‘roaring girl’ we would encounter “For of that tribe are many”. Behind her dim figures of women represented other forms of roaring girl, making the point that Moll was just one of many types.
Music was played intermittently by a band called The Cutpurses.
The setting in the Victorian era was astute, as it is near enough to the present for an audience to feel a connection with the now, but also far enough removed for the characters’ dated attitudes to appear realistic.
Mary (Faye Castelow) and Sebastian (Joe Bannister) provided a fairly standard presentation of frustrated love, with the disguised heroine sneaked in by Neatfoot (Christopher Middleton) to see her intended, both of them very decent and wholesome types (1.1). But the choice to have Mary disguised and at first unrecognisable was obviously meant to trigger subliminally our thoughts relating to reality, disguise and true identity.
The parallel between the two principal women was further emphasised by the fact that he also called her Moll.
Sebastian told Mary that he intended to pursue another woman called Moll as a ruse to obtain his father Sir Alexander’s consent to marry her.
The men sat round the large table at Sir Alexander’s house came forward, allowing the man himself (David Rintoul) to look out at the audience in his “galleries”, a reference to his large library of books, of which he said “all of heads the room seems made” (1.2). The Swan was an ideal setting for this theatrical in-joke: it does indeed call its own upper seating areas “galleries”. The very male atmosphere of after-dinner conviviality continued.
Sir Alexander described a clearly invented meeting with another man who bemoaned his son’s dalliance with an unsuitable woman, before openly arguing with Sebastian about his “cutpurse drab”. This false tale, designed to rile up his son, established him as powerful and arrogant, and increased our sympathy for Sebastian when he spoke up for himself.
The text was edited to remove confusing references but this sometimes had the effect of changing the tone and significance of exchanges, such as in this scene the removal of the phrase “I’ll give thee rats-bane rather” from the exchange between Sebastian and Sir Alexander. This removed “rats-bane” but made Sir Alexander less aggressive.
Sebastian stormed off determined to have his desires, leaving Sir Alexander to encounter and recruit Trapdoor (Geoffrey Freshwater).
The reference to “Saints days” was changed to “bank holiday”, which did nothing but create a modern feel to the exchange because Sir Alexander was predicting rain.
Trapdoor looked and sounded like the kind of East End lowlife common in Victorian fiction and his chilling prediction that he, a roaring boy, would put down the Roaring Girl, set up an interesting expectation of conflict.
There was a musical interlude with Moll playing electric guitar as the set was changed to bring in the dinner table for the next scene. Still in modern clothes, this Roaring Girl was a contemporary figure, which created the subtle impression that her appearance subsequently within the action of the play was Moll going back in time. At the very least the shift in attire created a connection between past and present.
A three-part glass cabinet display was brought in for the apothecary shop, this tripartite structure was a nod to the original stage directions to have three shops side by side (2.1). The actual arrangement here was slightly different.
The gallants came across Mistress Gallipot (Lizzie Hopley) who was grinding tobacco suggestively. The text was changed to create a joke about a woman’s husband becoming bankrupt and “shag” becoming her fortune.
The double entendres with the tobacco pipe still worked and she purred as she handed Laxton (Keir Charles) his pipe: he said that he wished it was always handled that way. Mistress Gallipot was characterised by her silly but raucous laugh.
Laxton begged money from her which she handed over under the guise of a supply of tobacco. Even though the cash was in notes, it was still referred to as “angels”. The text editors probably baulked at substituting anything else.
The feather shop was represented downstage by mannequins with feathers, which worked well. “Simon and Jude’s rain” was changed to “bank holiday rain”, substituting a contemporary expression.
The seamstress shop appeared centre stage with the comical couple of Mr and Mrs Openwork (Tony Jayawardena & Harvey Virdi). He was a big man and his wife was commensurately buxom.
Moll made her first appearance within the play in a hat, a long skirt with a bustle, and a jerkin type top, looking almost feminine in comparison with her initial appearance in distinctly male gear.
This had the effect of making her first scheduled appearance less strikingly unusual than her previous ones as Prologue and musician. Her attire was comparatively conservative. Although very distinctive, she seemed less out of place than might have been expected. This seeded the idea that she was not as anarchic and unruly as her reputation had been painted, particularly by Sir Alexander.
Given her previous overtly modern male garb, any concession to the dress conventions of the time looked like conformity. They thought that she was the complete rebel, whereas the audience saw something more in line with the conventions of the period of the play’s setting.
She was accompanied by her female Maid (Joan Iyiola) who held an umbrella over her head. Laxton was obviously smitten. She had short hair but the long skirt bottom meant that at this stage she was not so obviously dressed as a man as she had been in her extra-textual appearances earlier on.
Moll visited the seamstress’s shop and Mr Openwork tripped up and fell to his knees in front of her groin, prompting his wife’s comment about him being in the “low countries doing a mischief”. Mistress Openwork touched her body saying she was blessed with “good ware” but complained about her husband’s lack of attention “for when I open it up I take nothing”.
It was interesting that by this point the other characters had been behaving in various underhand and lewd ways, suggesting and acting out all types of impropriety, but Moll herself was simply shopping: her only contravention of accepted mores being sartorial. It was therefore apt that this should be taking place amid clothes shops.
Gull (Tom Padley) – and not the original’s Fellow – entered for the first time and Moll overpowered him with her knife, taking revenge for the slight he had given her. She said she had been “insulted” rather than “abused”. A more warranted alteration was the substitution of “stallion” for “stone horse”.
Laxton was highly impressed and asked her out. The proposed locations were changed to Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common and Stoke Newington cemetery. She agreed and he paid her money, making it plain that this was a commercial transaction. The original locations of their agreed assignation, Holborn and Gray’s Inn Fields, were kept.
Moll gave a hint of her omnivorous appetite by saying she would like to test Mrs Tiltyard’s (Liz Crowther) honesty. This occurred in conversation with Jack Dapper (Ian Bonar), who with his extravagant dress and professed dislike of women was positioned as effeminate, certainly in comparison with Moll.
Goshawk (Peter Bray) tried to work on Mistress Openwork by suggesting that her husband had a suburban whore.
Trapdoor offered his service to Moll and vaunted his strength, but she easily tripped him and proved his boasting empty. Nevertheless she told him to meet her at Gray’s Inn later.
The shopkeepers headed off for Dalston, changed from the “Hogsden” of the original.
Sebastian stood in the rain at a location that was not obviously Moll’s house and spoke his heart, overheard by his father at the side (2.2). Sebastian became aware of the lurking presence and directed some of his comments pointedly at him. The RSC prompt book made it explicit that he spotted his father and tailored his speech to suit his audience, which is not in the original play’s SDs. “Yea, are you so near?” was turned into Sebastian spotting Sir Alexander.
Moll was accompanied by a Porter (Michael Moreland) who carried in a huge double bass in a case on his back. Sebastian was quite touching in his attempt to pick her up and she was very courteous in her response. She had “no humour to marry” and her comment that she liked to “lie on both sides of the bed” could have been taken to have a hidden meaning. As she put it herself, she was “man enough for a woman”.
Moll’s amazingly opaque phrase “Never choose a wife as if you were going to Virginia” was left in, but Sebastian mouthed it again with a puzzled expression. What would have been comprehensible to the original audience, here became a facet of Moll’s mysterious otherness.
Openwork caught up with her and tried to measure her for her Dutch slop. She hoisted up her skirt to reveal her tattooed legs and went along with the lewd innuendo of their exchange.
Sir Alexander came forward and openly challenged Sebastian about his proposed marriage to Moll. The word “ordinaries” became “pubs”. Sebastian defended Moll by pointing out that she was “loose in nothing but in mirth”.
At Gray’s Inn Fields it was possible to take an instant dislike to Laxton who we saw was a regular whore chaser (3.1). Moll now appeared in a top hat and tails with wisps of male facial hair on her chin, a look very reminiscent of the film character Albert Nobbs.
The point at which Moll encountered her most vicious adversary was also the point at which she donned her most fearsome battledress.
She confronted him with his villainy and threw the money envelope back at him. It fell on the ground and they fought over it. They used their canes in the manner of swords, which was a neat use of Victorian conventions. Moll eventually overpowered him and threatened his chest with a knife as she promised to “write so much upon your breast”.
Her attack on him was against lax morals and in defence of girls who wanted to maintain a reputation for chastity. As she put it “Has mirth no kindred in the world but lust?” She continued:
“I scorn to prostitute myself to a man,
I that can prostitute a man to me.”
This would be pretty strong stuff in any age, but taking account of the date of composition in 1611, it begins to look very radical.
Laxton’s phrase “lecherous voyage” became “sexy jaunt”, which was clumsy and probably unnecessary.
He timidly surrendered, leaving Moll to comment that she would like to meet all her enemies that way one at a time.
Trapdoor turned up as arranged and Moll took advantage of her disguise to trick him before eventually revealing her identity.
Given her previous hints at her omnivorous tastes, Moll’s line “sometimes I lie about Chick Lane” took on extra shades of meaning. This was originally a reference to a notoriously rough area, but in the context of this staging the expression could be taken as a euphemism for bisexuality.
As they exited Trapdoor picked up the envelope containing the money abandoned by Laxton, but Moll forced him to hand it over.
The order of the last two scenes in act three was reversed, so that 3.3 followed next.
Sir Alexander was walking upstage with Sir Davy (Colin Anthony Brown) when Trapdoor caught his attention. He stepped through the iron gate separating them to speak with Trapdoor, pretending to his companion that this was some business arrangement. Trapdoor informed Sir Alexander that his son and Moll were due to meet at his house. “Your son and her moon” in conjunction was illustrated by Trapdoor poking his index finger in and out of a hole formed by the fingers and thumb of his other hand. They then both pretended to wrangle to provide a pretext for their meeting.
Sir Davy explained that he wanted to have his own son arrested so that prison might teach him a lesson. The character of “Curtilax” was changed to “Cutlass” (Michael Moreland again) but his partner “Hanger” (Ken Nwosu) stayed the same. They received their instructions and prepared an ambush.
Trapdoor now carried the umbrella over Moll’s head in the same way that her maid had done before. They entered on the gallery walkway. They sensed the presence of law enforcement and their references to smelling “carrion” and “I spy ravens” were changed to the more contemporary “something rotten” and “I spy filth”.
The officers took up position behind the metal gate upstage. Jack and Gull entered and were about to be taken, but Moll and Trapdoor shouted a warning to them enabling them to escape. However, the staging of this was a little vague and did not make it clear what was going on.
The final rhyming couplet in Moll’s parting speech was cut so that she exited just saying “I’m glad I have done one perfect good deed today.”
Mistress Gallipot scolded her husband (Timothy Speyer) before retrieving Laxton’s letter and teasing the audience with the trick, involving a delivery of medicinal herbs, by which it was sent to her (3.2).
She read its proclamations of love and stumbled over its references to figures from classical literature, adding “Who are all these people?”
When her husband discovered the letter she tore it into pieces rather than let him read it. At this point the acting style changed to Victorian melodrama, perhaps prompted by the decision to set the play in that era. The style worked very well as the couple comically over-reacted with heightened emotion to the situation. Mrs Gallipot invented a story in which she had been betrothed to Laxton but had married Mr Gallipot once Laxton had been presumed dead somewhere in France.
She managed to convince her husband that Laxton could be assuaged with thirty pounds to cover his expenses in coming to recover her.
The others arrived and Goshawk explained to Mistress Openwork that Gallipot had annoyed his wife, and that she might soon be similarly annoyed if her own husband came home late from visiting his whore. She rejected the idea, caressing herself and praising her “fresher meat” over any “stale mutton” her husband might find elsewhere.
There followed a brilliant sequence in which Laxton met the Gallipots, and Mistress Gallipot had to signal to him that she had “opened all before him concerning you”, a staple of many a farce and sitcom. Laxton had to work out the fake story that Mistress Gallipot had invented and then play along with it convincingly.
Master Gallipot mentioned the precontract, which Laxton had to hastily integrate into his version. Mistress Gallipot fell to her knees in supplication, a gesture which once again looked like a sexual act. But as soon as Laxton realised that Gallipot intended to pay him off he readily accepted the cash, leaving him to make a villainous snarling remark to close the first half: “You are apple-eaters all, deceivers still.”
The second half began with a table set up centre stage above which hung a low chandelier (4.1). This enabled Sir Alexander, assisted by Trapdoor, to prep the room by hanging his expensive watch and other trinkets from it, in order to trap Moll into stealing them.
Sebastian appeared with Mary (dressed in a fetching check three-piece suit, her hair tied up) and Moll who was wearing simple trousers and shirt, her chin seemingly more bestubbled than before.
Moll commented on how her tailor had fitted Mary with her suit and in so doing she seemed to linger by her in an overfriendly manner, hinted once again at her omnivorousness.
Sebastian and Mary kissed and he commented on how he liked her look and how her kisses seemed “worth a pair of two”.
The “viol” that Sebastian asked Moll to play was in fact the huge double bass that had been seen earlier. This was a much better instrument than the rather tame looking viol da gamba.
Moll played a song while strumming the bass with her fingers. The words of the song were slightly altered, but the phrase “those hypocrites” was added and at this point Moll paused for effect, indicating that it was the hypocrisy of those “halfwits… who call me whore first” that vexed her.
Moll passed the bass to Sebastian. She then noticed and retrieved the watch and other jewels from the chandelier. Sebastian recognised a sound made by his father and hastily pretended that Moll was his music teacher. She put on a French accent to add to her mystique.
They also decided that they had to hide Mary, so she ducked under the desk and then hid behind the large double bass, which was then comically repositioned each time that Sir Alexander moved so that Mary could crouch and hide behind it. This visual gag was extended to them letting go completely of the double bass at one point, so that the hidden Mary was holding it miraculously in place. She eventually took flight off one of the walkways.
Sir Alexander paid Moll with coins with holes as a trick: “These will I make induction to her ruin”.
The three mistresses Openwork, Gallipot and Tiltyard sat on chairs and had a gab (4.2). Openwork explained that Goshawk had tried to convince her that her husband was visiting a whore in Brentford, but was only doing so to try to “make me cry quack”, a phrase she explained by briefly flexing her knees apart.
The text was altered slightly so that Goshawk implied that he was running all three of the women and not just the two “mills” and “swans” of the text.
Master Openwork caught up with Goshawk and there was something confidently confrontational about his greeting to him.
Mistress Openwork accused her husband of having a dalliance at Brentford, which led into more melodramatic histrionics which provided some excellent comic relief. With Mistress Openwork saying things like “You have struck ten thousand daggers through my heart” the melodramatic excess seemed completely warranted by the text.
Openwork realised that someone had falsely accused him of chasing whores, which made Goshawk nervous at being unmasked. Mistress Openwork refused to name her informant. But when Openwork asked the other two women if they knew his accuser, Gallipot said no and Tiltyard said yes simultaneously before putting her hand over her mouth.
Openwork demanded that Goshawk tell if he knew, which he denied. This prompted the women to accuse Goshawk and he shamefully confessed. Despite the furious emotion that had preceded, Openwork forgave him and himself admitted that he had led Goshawk to believe that he had a whore at Brentford, but only to see whether Goshawk were as wanton as he had suspected. So peace and tranquillity were restored in an unlikely turn of events.
Goshawk had learnt his lesson and promised not to “deal upon men’s wives” any more.
Laxton entered disguised as a legal official in a wig, with a crutch and holding one leg off the ground to appear one-legged. He issued the Gallipots with a summons for more money relating to the precontract. After some bickering between Mistress Gallipot and Laxton, he was unmasked and the whole truth came out: that the story about the precontract had been a ruse, that Mistress Gallipot had been tricked into procuring him money, but that Laxton had not actually bedded her. She was now fed up with his tricks and constant demands.
Laxton then invented another story, claiming that he had only pursued her to establish if she were as constant as she had made out. Gallipot fell for this, to the extent that he invited Laxton to dinner while castigating his wife for being a tease. The obvious injustice of this tied in nicely with the overall theme of the play of men maltreating women.
Jack thanked Moll up on the gallery for saving him from arrest (5.1). From this scene were cut Lord Noland, Beauteous Ganymede and Tearcat. Trapdoor was missing presumed lost after Moll realised he had been working for Sir Alexander.
As Jack was explaining that it was his own father who had arranged to have him sent to prison, Trapdoor entered on the main stage disguised as a Chelsea pensioner/war veteran. He limped in on two crutches, the visual resemblance between him and Dickens’ Tiny Tim prompted his remark “God bless us every one”.
Trapdoor tried to beg from Jack and Moll, who questioned him about his military service. His long rambling list of campaigns and the nationalities of his comrades did not impress. As he itemised the various places in Italy he claimed to have been, Moll repeated his “Montepulciano” under her breath in disbelief.
Moll pulled his eye patch away from his face when she confronted him with his lies.
Trapdoor had learnt beggars canting language and the discussion moved onto this. Jack wanted to learn it also when he heard Moll translating what Trapdoor was saying.
Trapdoor suggested (in cant) that Moll and he go out thieving together and then “wap” and “niggle”. Moll translated most of this but not the last term. Jack insisted on knowing, so Trapdoor demonstrated by referring to it as “fadoodling” accompanied by a lewd gesture.
The canting song was turned into a big musical number. Both Moll and Trapdoor acquired mics and the band came out to play turning it into a rap. Other members of the cast joined them and provided appropriate sassy dance moves. Everyone had a whale of a time as the canting song was blasted out, with the lines shared between Moll and Trapdoor.
However, the actual words of the canting song were indistinguishable so that it was difficult to discern what was being said.
The intended victims of the cutpurses were changed from the minor characters Lord Noland and Sir Thomas of the original text to Mary’s father Sir Guy Fitzallard (Ian Redford) and Jack’s father Sir Davy.
Moll observed the cutpurses and quickly explained their various job titles and tactics to Jack before intercepting stolen the wallet as it was thrown from one thief to another and restoring it to its rightful owner.
The original text’s joke about someone losing a purse “at the last new play at the Swan” worked beautifully here in the Stratford Swan Theatre with Moll giving a knowing look to the audience.
Sir Davy and Sir Guy asked Moll how she knew these people and why she was known as Moll Cutpurse. This was the cue for Moll’s long speech explaining that her knowledge of the criminal world did not make her an integral part of it, summarised with “Must you have a black, ill name because ill things you know?”
She had become known as Moll Cutpurse because of this but she did not care. Crucially, it was now Sir Guy who praised her “brave mind”.
The connection now established between Sir Guy and Moll, facilitated by the change to the cast in this sequence, would serve a useful purpose later.
At his house, Sir Alexander was in uproar as Goshawk told him that Sebastian and Moll were to be married but no one knew for certain where they were (5.2).
Sir Guy and Jack broke in upon them. Sir Jack was unhappy at Sir Alexander’s treatment of his daughter, but seemingly happy that he was now to be repaid by his son marrying Moll instead.
Amid the chaos, Sir Guy said that he would wager Sebastian’s revenues that he could prevent the marriage. In his desperation Sir Alexander similarly pledged that he would give Sebastian half his wealth if he would marry anyone but Moll. Sir Guy justified his decision by saying that he liked Sebastian because he had loved his daughter and thought that more money would make him choose someone of higher status that Moll.
Moll appeared briefly in her man’s clothes and was asked if this was her wedding gown before she disappeared again. She met downstage with Mary, who was holding a wedding veil. This created the immediate expectation that the next person to be seen wearing that veil would be Mary.
Goshawk tried to reassure Sir Alexander that no priest would marry his son to Moll. His comment that “it was never known that two men were married and conjoined in one” drew some murmurs from the audience in the light of recent legislative changes in the UK.
Sir Alexander repeatedly said that he would be happy whomever Sebastian married.
Sebastian entered accompanied by a veiled figure in a white wedding dress together with Mary’s father Sir Guy. Sir Alexander was overjoyed to see such a feminine bride at Sebastian’s side, but when he lifted the veil it was Moll grinning back at him and she proceeded to run amok with much glee.
Moll congratulated Sir Alexander that he would now be a figure of note for having her as a daughter-in-law rather than being the obscure figure he had been to date.
Sir Guy, undoubtedly as part of the general ruse, asked to be freed from his promise to give money to Sebastian, offering in return to accept Sir Alexander’s retraction of his pledge. But Sir Alexander was determined to press on.
Sir Guy took this as the cue to spring the trap and to call in the real couple: Sebastian entered accompanied by Mary in a dark coloured wedding outfit. Sir Alexander was overjoyed and apologised for rejecting her previously.
The fact that it had been Sir Guy who had encountered and praised Moll’s character earlier made it more credible that he had been recruited to Moll’s scheme through that bond of admiration.
Moll pointed out that she had had a hand in the scheme, to which Sir Alexander replied that he could not condemn her. After batting away that remark, she pointed out that Sir Alexander had made the crucial mistake of assuming that she would have automatically consented to Sebastian’s advances.
She riddled when asked when she would herself marry, and Sir Alexander admitted that he had wronged her too. Trapdoor confessed to having worked with Sir Alexander to ensnare Moll, obliging the now very contrite Sir Alexander to apologise once again. Moll returned the money he had give her for her music tuition, but he insisted he would “thrice double” the payment to “make thy wrongs amends”, before he joyfully summarised how happily this eventful day had concluded.
Moll stayed behind to deliver the epilogue, which was altered towards the end, so that she said:
“The Roaring Girl here herself shall hence upon this stage give larger recompense”
instead of the text’s:
“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, shall on this stage give larger recompense”.
This changed the original’s opaque reference to a reappearance by Mary Frith or the actor playing her, into a general statement about the character continuing to live on the stage beyond the bounds of this particular play.
The play that gave its name to the entire RSC season of female-centric drama was made relevant without cutting completely loose from its historical roots. The key was the production’s setting in the halfway house of the Victorian era.
An intelligent change to the casting of one scene improved on the original by giving Sir Guy Fitzallard a credible reason for assisting Moll.
The play teaches a moral lesson about making assumptions.
The Roaring Girl is a good girl really.