The Best Cleopatra

Antony & Cleopatra, The Globe, 1 June 2014

The decorative tiring house of the Globe was covered in upright planks of wood painted red. The stage pillars were left untouched, while the luxuriousness of Cleopatra’s court was suggested by blankets and cushions ready on stage for the first scene.

But it was the long pre-show with its increasingly frenetic dancing that created the required atmosphere of decadent exoticism into which wandered the upright messengers from Rome.

As the play proper began (1.1), the messengers commented on how Antony was in thrall to Cleopatra, something the audience soon saw for themselves as the Egyptian queen (Eve Best) entered wearing knee-length trousers and a man’s shirt, brandishing Antony’s sword with the air of a pirate. Antony (Clive Wood) wore a loose-fitting gown topped off with a floral coronet. The two of them scampered around wearing each other’s clothes, something that would be referenced later in the text.

There were bored groans for her entourage when the messengers from Rome were mentioned. Cleopatra continued her skittish sarcasm about the latest instructions from Caesar.

Antony’s sense of fun continued to assert itself. When he commented that “The nobleness of life is to do thus…” he kissed Cleopatra passionately, demonstrating that his idea of true nobility was rather more Egyptian than Roman.

He approached the messengers and snapped to attention causing them to respond obediently in kind, before undermining the martial rigour of the moment by insisting in a camp voice “Speak not to us” followed by a swift, tripping exit with a delighted Cleopatra.

The Soothsayer (Jonathan Bonnici), his face painted blue, told both Charmian (Sirine Saba) and Iras (Rosie Hilal) that they would outlive their mistress (1.2). This prediction would not prove accurate for Iras who would in fact die before the queen.

Cleopatra entered with a sheet wrapped round her, indicating that she and Antony were in mid act when he had left her after being struck by “a Roman thought”. Once he entered, Cleopatra and her women turned and left in a tight group, pointedly and slightly comically looking away from Antony as they passed him.

Antony learnt from the second messenger that his wife Fulvia was dead.

Phil Daniels’ lugubrious Enobarbus greeted the news of Fulvia’s death by looking on the bright side with his smock/petticoat analogy, while a still pensive Antony sat on the steps down into the yard.

Eve Best portrayed a wonderfully petulant Cleopatra making her pretend sickness, a game at Antony’s expense, much more than a silly girl’s prank (1.3). She doubled over in feigned illness when Antony appeared. Her sarcasm and bitterness about Fulvia were an expression of her assertiveness rather than a indication of weakness.

Cleopatra’s satisfaction on hearing of Fulvia’s death was instantly replaced by her complaint that Antony had not wept for her. Her restoration to health with the words “I am ill and quickly well” was both comical but also a positive demonstration of her ability to adopt moods and conditions as and when it suited as if by royal prerogative.

The first scene set in Rome (1.4) showed the Romans in vaguely Jacobean costume. Caesar (Jolyon Coy) was young-looking with well-groomed blond hair. His neatness of appearance indicated a certain puritanical asceticism.

Back in Egypt, servants used ropes to pull a platform from the tiring house (1.5). On the platform was a bed on which Cleopatra lounged, her white outfit matching the white sheets of the bed. The servants who had brought the bed on stage then pulled on ropes that caused fans in the stage to canopy to waft back and forth. Cleopatra lay on her stomach and asked Mardian (Obioma Ugoala) to stop singing before joking with him about his affections.

She envied the “happy horse” that might at that moment have been bearing Antony’s weight in her place. She imitated Antony mockingly when she imagined him asking “Where’s my old serpent of Nile?” adopting a vaguely working class London accent. Her delivery of the following phrase “For so he calls me” was equally telling because it showed that Cleopatra loved the fact that Antony had this particular name for her. This fitted well with Cleopatra’s subsequent praise for Antony’s “well-divided disposition”.

Pompey (Philip Correia) and the pirates learnt that Antony had joined the other Romans and was coming after them (2.1).

For the big meeting in Rome the SPQR banners were unfurled from the tiring house (2.2). A long table was placed across the stage with Caesar and Antony taking up opposing positions at either end. The distance between the two rivals along the length of the table matched the frosty atmosphere.

Octavius claimed that Antony had ignored his letters and had thus “broken the article of your oath”. This accusation was the trigger to release Antony’s suppressed anger: he lifted up his end of the table and banged it down forcefully and noisily onto the stage in response to his honour being questioned.

Enobarbus commented cynically that the opposing parties could feign friendship and then return to their dispute afterwards.

Agrippa (Daniel Rabin) proposed that Antony should marry Caesar’s sister Octavia, and she appeared on stage so that we could see her cold disposition. But despite the apparent amity engendered by the forthcoming marriage, Antony made it plain that he still harboured a grudge. When Caesar offered his hand to seal the deal, Antony gripped it powerfully and pulled Caesar forcefully towards him before moving away. What could have been a gesture expressing amity and impending familial connection became instead a power play hinting at future conflict.

Enobarbus was left behind with Maecenus (Ignatius Anthony) and they began to talk about life in Egypt. Maecenus asked if the rumours of their gargantuan feasts were true, to which Enobarbus replied that they had had “much more monstrous matter of feast” in a coarse, suggestive tone that hinted at sexual activity in addition to the gourmandising.

Enobarbus’ famous description of Cleopatra beginning “The barge she sat in…” was wonderfully delivered and, coming from Phil Daniels, brought home how this most poetic and majestic of descriptions was written to be spoken by a simple soldier who is otherwise earthy and cynical.

Octavia (Rosie Hilal) demonstrated her cold-blooded nature by refusing to kiss, so Antony bade her goodnight by patting her hand (2.3). Antony asked the Soothsayer “whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?” Underling the foreboding nature of the prediction, when the Soothsayer replied “Caesar’s” the SPQR banners lining the back wall all fell to the ground simultaneously.

Antony realised that he should return to Egypt. His instructions to Ventidius were cut, allowing scene 3.1 to be cut later.

Scene 2.4 was cut allowing Antony and Cleopatra to stand on stage next to each other as the end of 2.3 overlapped the start of 2.5. This allowed the production to dramatise the strong connection between these two eponymous characters.

They spoke alternate lines: his ending of 2.3 “I will to Egypt.. I’ the east my pleasure lies” followed by her start to 2.5 requesting “music, moody food of us that trade in love”. Although dramatically separate, Cleopatra leant towards him as if able to smell him, pointing to her more sensuous and instinctive nature, another difference between Rome and Egypt.

Cleopatra fancied a game of billiards with Charmian, but she passed and suggested the queen play with Mardian (2.5). Cleopatra warmed her hand and was just about to put it down Mardian’s trousers, when she changed her mind fearing he might “come too short” all of which indicated an ulterior meaning behind the intended “play”.

The queen fancied fishing instead and, continuing the theme of games as sexual metaphor, looked around the front of the yard for likely men. She held out her crooked finger like a hook with which she was angling, before descending the steps to kiss one saying “Ah, ha! You’re caught!” She commented on some cross-dressed fun she had had with Antony in which he wore “tires and mantles” and she wore his “sword Phillipian” which we had seen at the start of the performance.

This playful frivolity set the tone for the sequence with the messenger from Rome.

On seeing the Messenger (Peter Bankolé) approach, Cleopatra panicked that this meant that Antony was dead. She gratefully offered the Messenger gold when he reassured her that this was not so. The gold she offered was in form of her own bracelet and anklets, which she removed and piled on a stage pillar ledge as a visual reminder of her generosity.

Her reaction to the Messenger’s caveat “But yet…” was as wonderfully comic as could be expected. When he finally divulged that Antony had married Octavia she slapped him hard on the face with an audible crack, then slapped him with her hands some more. She forced him down onto his back and pulled on his head to hold him upright as she promised him riches if he said Antony was not married. When he confirmed Antony indeed was, she threw him backwards to the ground and then grabbed a fruit knife to threaten him. The terrified Messenger ran off and Cleopatra would have pursued him had she not been restrained by Charmian.

The still angry Cleopatra wanted the Messenger to return. She checked herself and realised that she had to put on a pretence of calm. She offered a not very convincing “Though I am mad, I will not bite him”. She dug her knife into the stage but Charmian found this insufficiently reassuring. Cleopatra subsequently acquiesced and handed it over.

Apprehensive

Charmian escorted in the apprehensive Messenger who threw himself prone on the ground. She once more resented hearing his bad news and scared him away, but gave Alexas (Kammy Darweish) instructions that the Messenger should be employed to report back on Octavia’s appearance.

The Romans agreed a peace with Pompey and arranged a feast to mark their concord (2.6). Menas (Sean Jackson) thought that the marriage of Antony and Octavia meant a firm alliance between Antony and Caesar, but Enobarbus concluded that Antony had “married but his occasion”.

The staging of the party scene took advantage of the large expanse of the Globe stage (2.7). A big vat of drink was brought out and the men danced vigorously in a circle to the tune of the text’s “Cup us till the world go round”. Caesar sat at the side refusing to join in the festivities.

Antony once again showed his contempt for Caesar. He spoke drunkenly to the reticent Caesar ostensibly on the subject of Egyptian agriculture. But at the phrase “scatters his grain” Antony’s supposed imitation of the grain scatterer was clearly a wanking gesture, which then at “comes to harvest” culminated with a mock ejaculation directed at Caesar’s face.

Menas, critical of the peace deal, drew Pompey aside and the pair conversed while Antony drunkenly described a crocodile to Lepidus (James Hayes). This action froze allowing Menas to tempt Pompey with the idea of killing the three triumvirs. But while Pompey would have applauded the assassinations had they been carried out without his prior knowledge, he could not in good conscience give prior approval for them.

The riotous company had been drinking healths to all and sundry, especially to Lepidus who became so drunk that he had to be helped away. They now turned on Caesar chanting his name repeatedly to cajole him into some revelry. Despite their warm enthusiasm, he replied coldly “I could well forbear it” to which Antony wearily countered “Be a child o’th’ time”.

Antony then roped Caesar into the next drunken dance that ended with Caesar being carried on their shoulders as they chanted his name. But they stumbled and Caesar was sent sprawling onto the floor, an indignity that he did not appreciate: he protested angrily “What would you more?”

This brought the festivities to an end. Pompey was so reconciled to Antony that he was able to feign aggressive indignation at Antony’s seizure of his father’s house but then assure him with joshing familiarity that they were now friends.

As Enobarbus departed, he announced “There’s my cap” putting his tankard on his head to show it was empty.

The brief scene showing Ventidius and Silius in victory was cut (3.1).

After the farewells and departure of Octavia and Antony from Caesar (3.2), the action returned to Egypt (3.3).

Cleopatra’s messenger, again afraid to enter her presence, lay prone on the ground. The queen had been working on a sampler and as she stood to listen to reports of Octavia’s appearance the sampler became a stress toy on which she vented her anxieties, particularly after hearing that her rival was only 30.

She stood downstage facing the audience looking over her shoulder to enquire after Octavia, foregrounding both herself and her fretful sewing. She paused for a particularly long time and sewed extra nervously before asking about Octavia’s age.

But she was able to put her worried behind her when she exuberantly greeted the messenger’s account of Octavia’s unattractiveness.

Antony and Octavia agreed that she should return to Rome to make peace between her new husband and her brother (3.4).

Eros told Enobarbus that Lepidus had been taken prisoner by Caesar after having outlived his usefulness in the war against Pompey (3.5). Lepidus was marched in chains across the stage, down into the yard and outside to illustrate this plot point.

Caesar’s complaints about Antony and Cleopatra’s behaviour in Egypt were interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Octavia on the stage right walkway (3.6). Caesar regretfully informed her that her new husband was not, as she had assumed, in Athens but had taken advantage of Octavia’s absence to return to Cleopatra in Egypt.

At end of the scene Antony and Cleopatra processed out through the tiring house centre doors in magnificent ceremonial costumes and proceeded down into the yard where they were showered with gold confetti by audience members on the front row of the middle gallery (who had found envelopes containing confetti and bearing instructions on their seats when arriving in the theatre). The gold theme linked back to the reference in Caesar’s speech at the start of the scene describing them as sitting “in chairs of gold”.

This spectacular display of pomp heralded the interval.

The second half of the performance was preceded by a pre-show. The Soothsayer muttered incantations to himself as he cut open a dead goat and examined its entrails, the smoke of incense wafting about him. He evidently foresaw trouble: he became agitated by what he read in the entrails at which point Caesar and Antony appeared and faced off against each other as if dramatising his forebodings.

A tattered map unfurled on the back wall showing the Mediterranean as the Egyptians laid plans (3.7). Ready for battle, Cleopatra wore an armoured breastplate, the same one worn by Frances Barber in the Globe’s 2006 production.

Antony insisted on fighting at sea against Enobarbus’ recommendation to fight on land. Cleopatra became bored with Enobarbus’ insistence and leant against a stage pillar and ho-hummed. A Roman soldier allied to Antony remarked that they should fight by land and that the Egyptians should be left to “go a-ducking”, which produced an outraged look from Cleopatra. She drew close to Antony, who was defensive of her.

The two opposing armies appeared side by side so that the very brief successive scenes 3.8 and 3.9 could be run together with Antony giving battle orders immediately after Caesar.

The sea battle took the form of two men bearing the flags of the armies swinging around on ropes, the centrifugal force of their rotation separating them as they were lifted high above the stage (3.10). As they descended the SPQR flag fought off the Egyptian banner: a woman representing Cleopatra left the stage and the bearer of the Egyptian banner followed . This was a schematic and balletic way of representing a sea fight, and certainly a better solution than using model ships.

The scene ended with a verbal description of how Cleopatra had left the battle and Antony had followed her.

A downcast Antony spoke to his men and told them to take his gold and flee (3.11). Cleopatra nervously observed at the side with her entourage before speaking with him. He was angry at her, but they kiss and make up.

The Ambassador to Rome (James Hayes) requested that Antony be allowed to live a private man (3.12). Caesar refused but was willing to be lenient with Cleopatra if she handed over Antony. Caesar sent the Ambassador back and also dispatched Thidias (Jonathan Bonnici) to win Antony from Cleopatra.

Hearing of Caesar’s refusal from the Ambassador, Antony sent message back that he wanted to fight Caesar (3.13). During this scene Enobarbus stood far over on the stage left side separate from the others so that his cynical asides became the justifications of an outsider for his subsequent defection to Caesar.

Cleopatra agreed to accept Caesar’s terms as conveyed by Thidias. She offered her hand for the envoy to kiss. He went down on one knee to do so, where he was caught in flagrante delicto by Antony. The jealous Antony flew into a fury and had Thidias taken offstage to be whipped. Antony furiously berated Cleopatra for her alleged inconstancy.

Thidias was brought forth with vicious bloody stripes on his back, which Antony made a point of striking to exacerbate the pain. This callous act was even more shocking than the unseen offstage whipping.

Cleopatra looked in sorrow at her companion and asked dolefully “Have you done yet?” In those few words Eve Best managed to convey the idea that the game was indeed up. Cleopatra’s reticence was not just a comment on this immediate situation and Antony’s outburst, but showed that she realised that Antony’s reaction to Thidias was a symptom of his weakness not a demonstration of his strength.

This episode meant that their power was finished: Caesar had effectively won. Cleopatra had the insight to realise that the bright day was done and they were for the dark, as Iras would subsequently put it. She had seen that Antony was weak, because, like Leontes, only a weak man is capable of that kind of jealousy.

Cleopatra protested that she was not cold-hearted towards Antony in her flowing, eloquent speech about the discandying of poisoned hail. The force and evocative imagery of her assurances caused Antony to be reconciled with Cleopatra and he folded his hands around her. Cleopatra remembered that it was her birthday and they agreed to have a party. Enobarbus meanwhile decided that he definitely had to leave them.

A brief return to Rome saw Caesar decide to fight against Antony (4.1). But his resolution to make war was undercut by the plaintive tone in which he whined “He calls me boy”.

Antony gathered servants, who stood in a line as Antony bade them a kind of gloomy farewell (4.2). Denying his sorrowful mood only made Antony seem more morose.

The night before the battle some soldiers heard music under the stage (4.3).

Cleopatra helped Antony strap on his armour, but mistakenly attempted to fasten his wrist guard round his ankle (4.4). He kissed her warmly before going off to battle.

Antony heard that Enobarbus had deserted to join Caesar and sent his treasure after him (4.5). As Antony ruminated on his absent comrade, Enobarbus made an early entrance for the following scene turning his presence in this scene into a vision experienced by Antony. This also meant that Antony’s cry of “Enobarbus” was directed at him.

Caesar made ready and ordered that those who had fled from Antony should be at the front (4.6).

Enobarbus emerged from the back and was left alone to rue his treachery. His sense of wretchedness worsened when a soldier informed him that Antony had forwarded his treasure to him. Only a ditch was good enough for him now.

The second battle also involved the flag bearers (4.7). The soldiers of the two armies ran back and forth at each other, but then the stage cleared leaving the flag bearers once again to spar at each other. The SPQR colours were eventually chased away by the Egyptian standard. The schematic representation of the battle contrasted with the attention to detail in its aftermath as soldier Scarus (Obioma Ugoala) sported, exactly as he described, a scar on his arm in the shape of an H.

Antony celebrated victory with Cleopatra, who emerged from a party within the tiring house in a white dress and floral garland (4.8). In a comic touch commensurate with their upbeat mood, Antony made his soldiers turn away before he kissed her.

Enobarbus appeared by himself with no guards or soldiers observing his final moments (4.9). This increased the power of the scene because Enobarbus seemed more helpless for dying alone and unobserved.

When he called on Antony to forgive him, his former master appeared from the stage right side door and walked like a ghost in a straight line right past Enobarbus without acknowledging him, then off at the other door. The appearance of Antony to Enobarbus here mirrored Antony’s earlier fevered vision of Enobarbus. The staging of this vision was made more credible by there being no one else on stage. The soldiers only appeared once Enobarbus had collapsed to carry him away.

The armies of Antony and Caesar appeared side by side on the large stage enabling the two brief scenes 4.10 and 4.11 to be delivered rapidly before the armies headed off.

Battle

Another battle of the flag wavers resulted this time in victory for the SPQR banner as the Egyptian flag was dropped (4.12). Antony declared “All is lost” at which point the map of the Mediterranean that had adorned the back wall all this time fell ominously to the ground.

Cleopatra walked up the stage left slope in a long white dress, her eyes full of tears, but left after Antony roughed her about, blaming her for the defeat.

Cleopatra and her women headed for the monument and she instructed Mardian to tell Antony that she had killed herself (4.13).

Antony hinted to Eros (Peter Bankolé) that he wanted to die (4.14). When Mardian brought news of Cleopatra’s supposed death, this only encouraged Antony further in his desire to “overtake” her.

He asked Eros to strike at him with his sword. Preparing for the fatal blow, Antony shielded his face with his arm. This enabled Eros to draw his own sword, but then at the decisive moment he drove it into his own stomach.

Antony was full of admiration for Eros’ noble action and tried to follow his example by dying on his own sword. He cut at his stomach with the blade, but the movement was drawn out and jagged, not swift and decisive.

He crouched looking despondently at his stomach waiting for the blood to spout, but nothing much happened. He had injured himself, but at this rate death would be a long time coming. Antony waved his hand in front of the wound as if inviting the blood to issue forth. This looked like the impatience of an actor at a failed special effect, but was in fact Antony’s frustration at his poor handiwork, the quality of which was confirmed when the guards entered and Antony told them “I have done my work ill, friends.”

Alexas, not Diomedes, told Antony that Cleopatra was still alive. As he took in the news, he glanced down at his wound and laughed, before turning skywards to shake his head at the heavens in scorn. He asked to be carried to Cleopatra.

The main stage was used to represent the monument rather than any of the upper spaces above the stage (4.15). This had the advantage of keeping the action of the scene close to the audience.

Cleopatra, dressed in white, gathered with her women to observe Antony being carried by his soldiers through the yard. He was deposited just below the top of the stage left ramp. This enabled the final ascent into the monument, often involving a direct vertical lift, to be staged by having a rope attached round Antony with Cleopatra and her women dragging him the final few metres onto the main stage.

This was an ingenious way of having the scene take place on the main stage, but using ropes to drag him such a short distance up a shallow ramp looked odd. However, this was preferable to a more realistic staging that would have then positioned the couple somewhere in the tiring house gallery.

Once on the stage, Antony repeated that he was dying. But his immediate request “Give me some wine” felt comically inappropriate for someone near death.

Any questions about the staging were soon forgotten as the production went on to deliver one of its most powerful effects.

Cleopatra’s tight embrace of the bleeding, dying Antony meant that her pristine white dress became smeared with his blood, creating garish stains which would remain distinctly visible for the remainder of the play.

Antony died, slumping lifeless in Cleopatra’s arms after a final audible exhalation just as she reached the word “melt” in her summary phrase “the crown of the earth doth melt”. But she was soon on her feet holding her women close by her exclaiming “Ah, women, women! Come, we have no friend/But resolution and the briefest end” with a plaintive expression that lent the moment an air of poignancy. The scene ended with the dead Antony being dragged offstage by Cleopatra and the others.

Although the seizure of Antony’s sword by Decretus was cut from 4.14, he now brought this sword to Caesar who eulogised his dead opponent (5.1). Caesar sent Proculeius (Sean Jackson) to accept Cleopatra’s surrender and to arrange for her to be brought to Rome.

The stage was set for the final scene with the entry of Cleopatra’s golden throne (5.2). It was wheeled in from the tiring house on a platform. Its eagle’s wings were so wide that they folded back to pass through the tiring house doors and unfolded to their full impressive dimensions once the platform was in position.

Proculeius met with Cleopatra, who was washing her hands in a bowl to clean off Antony’s blood. He was all diplomatic unctuousness, giving her vague assurances that Egypt would be given to her son as she wished.

But then the ambush was sprung: other soldiers rushed in, one descending by rope from the tiring house in the equivalent of a special forces raid and took her prisoner despite her attempt to flee.

Cleopatra grabbed a knife and gestured with it at her wrist and then towards her stomach, but was disarmed. She would rather die in a ditch than be carried to Rome and have Octavia laugh at her.

Sat on the throne plinth talking with Dolabella (Philip Correia), Cleopatra went into a rapturous description of Antony, which was delivered very effectively. Dolabella admitted that Caesar intended exhibit her in Rome like so much war booty.

Caesar entered stage left, prompting Cleopatra on the far right side of the stage to crouch in obeisance face down on the ground together with one of her women, while the others crouched similarly stage left. Caesar could not distinguish which of these identically dressed bowed figures was Cleopatra, prompting his question “Which is the Queen of Egypt?” She eventually revealed herself by tentatively raising her hand while still facing downwards.

Caesar was polite but warned her of the dire consequences for her children if she killed herself. She looked appalled at this prospect, which Caesar noticed and quickly reassured her that her compliance would ensure their safety: “To that destruction… [Cleopatra panics], which I’ll guard them from…” This minor detail should be born in mind when admiring her nobility at the end. Acquiescing in her capture, she accepted that she would become a “scutcheon” for Caesar to display.

Interestingly, the entire sequence involving Cleopatra’s list of treasures as well as the false testimony and fake outrage of her treasurer was cut. This removed a relapse into levity from the final movement of the production so that a sense of impending tragedy was maintained. The lines from roughly 5.2.135-185 were cut.

Caesar departed offering more reassuring words.

In view of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse transfer, Iras’ line:

Finish, good lady. The bright day is done.
And we are for the dark.

began to look like something deliberately designed to take account of the late-afternoon indoor playhouse gloom. It certainly did work late on an early summer evening at the Globe.

Cleopatra did not whisper to Charmian, so that Iras’ request that she “finish” interrupted Cleopatra’s preceding complaint about Caesar, silencing her with a gloomy image invoking the twilight of their glory and pacifying her annoyance at being “boyed” by Caesar.

Dolabella confirmed that Caesar intended to send Cleopatra and her children away in three days. She imagined out loud what their capture would look like. She looked down at the groundlings when referring to the “mechanic slaves” that would breathe over them, a delightful nod to the constituents of the original audience. The reference to “some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness” was another reminder of the original performance conditions.

She asked Charmian to fetch her best attires. But this only involved her serpent crown and cloak.

The snakes were brought by the simple rustic man (James Hayes) who provided some comic relief with his user guide to “the worm”.

Cleopatra donned her robe and crown adjusting it on her head. She looked up into the air as she wistfully uttered that great line “I have immortal longings in me” and then “I am fire and air” etc. She kissed Iras who immediately collapsed in her arms and fell to the ground dead roughly stage right.

The queen feared that Iras would meet dead Antony first, so hastened to the throne and put the asp basket in her lap. She sat upright and clasped the asp to her, in a very subtle and delicate sequence that in a large outdoor theatre was not particularly grandiloquent, but which would have been ideal for a smaller indoor venue where such small-scale actions would be easier to observe.

No second asp was applied to her arm. After just the one asp bite, she sat bolt upright with her hands rigidly placed on the arms of the throne and died remaining firmly in position without slumping. Her eyes stayed open until Charmian shut them.

Her dead figure was still wearing the dress stained with Antony’s blood, which added something earthy and real to the gilt spectacle of her own suicide. She wore the stains like a badge of her attachment to her dead lover.

The guards discovered that “Caesar hath sent… too slow a messenger” as Charmian took the asp herself and died stage left.

The guards, Dolabella and then Caesar discovered the grisly scene. Caesar paid his final tribute to the Egyptian queen.

At the start of the production’s run there was no concluding jig, just curtain calls. But the jig was included later on, but with Clive Wood not taking part.

Conclusions

The production managed to evoke a sense of Antony and Cleopatra’s world falling apart, with Cleopatra recognising in sorrow that Antony’s whipping of Caesar’s messenger was a symptom of his impending downfall.

Eve Best made a welcome return to the Globe stage and managed to combine Cleopatra’s uber-femininity with sufficient steeliness to suggest a warrior queen. She was flighty but also fighty.

With the production subsequently transferring to the indoor candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, viewing it outdoors became an exercise in spotting moments that did not quite work in the Globe and would be played differently indoors.

If the Globe’s Titus was a clanging empty vessel, this was a production of lasting substance.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse transfer, 31 August 2014

The production transferred into the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for two performances on 31 August and 1 September 2014.

The staging of the battles had to be altered which meant that the performances lost some of the aerial work that looked so impressive on the outdoor stage. On the other hand, exploring the indoor space offered new staging possibilities that enhanced some moments in the production.

The lighting scheme was initially simple with six candelabras at the standard height of 8ft with the shutters closed for the whole of the first half.

The preshow was fitted onto the smaller Playhouse stage with the advantage that Charmian and Iras were now able to dance in the pit aisle and flirt was audience members there, while still being connected to the onstage action. This was not practical on the Globe stage, where the party was kept firmly on the main stage.

Antony and Cleopatra entered through the pit aisle onto the stage as they engaged in their horseplay. Cleopatra jumped over the balustrade into the front row of the lower gallery and then stood on the balustrade for her first lines. These opening moments demonstrated that there is great scope for audience interaction in the Playhouse.

That the Playhouse audience is so easily accessible by the actors both in the galleries at the side and in the pit, makes the Playhouse a better space for audience interaction than the Globe where steps into the yard are not always present and the distance involved in making a trip among the groundlings is that much greater.

Another instance that demonstrated this point was when Cleopatra sat on a spare seat in the pit and looked at Antony like an expectant spectator as she ordered him to “play one scene of excellent dissembling” by crying for Fulvia and pretending his tears were for her.

The cast also used handheld candles for practical and symbolic purposes. Cleopatra used a four-candle handheld when reading her book; Octavia carried a single candle for her silent walk around the stage front, introducing her character when Antony’s marriage to her was first suggested.

Cleopatra occasionally played with candles in sconces, an action which made her appear skittish and playful. This was an instance of Playhouse fittings providing an opportunity for character exposition.

For practical reasons the large banners that adorned the back of the Globe stage were completely absent.

Pompey and his associate appeared in the musicians’ gallery for their first scene and the rear two candelabras were raised to their highest level in order to illuminate them.

Cleopatra fished for a lover in the pit and found a somewhat reluctant fish.

The big party scene was crammed onto the comparatively small Playhouse stage. Caesar was still born aloft on the shoulders of the revellers and dumped onto the stage despite all the candelabras remaining in their standard position just 8ft off the ground.

The first half ended with the same gold glitter shower as Cleopatra and Antony paraded out the pit aisle.

Keeping to the pattern of the Globe staging, the Soothsayer and goat were on stage as the audience returned for second half.

The back four candelabras were raised to their highest position for the first battle. The front two ascended for the night-time watch scene (4.3), with the guards carrying handheld sconces.

The battles were reduced in scope. There was no aerial work for the first battle. The opposing flags were waved at each other to represent the fight. Interestingly, the part in which the siren lady representing Cleopatra circled around the flag bearers and led away the Egyptian flag appeared clearer in the Playhouse because the action was tightly focused.

Antony’s admission of his final defeat “All is lost” did not trigger the collapse of the absent banner, so their submission was indicated solely by the troops collapsing to the ground.

Enobarbus had Luna on the Playhouse roof to address when imploring the Moon (4.9).

The back four candelabras were lowered for the monument scene (4.15) and they were all lowered for the arrival of the throne minus its wings (5.2).

The main stage of the Playhouse was used to represent the interior of Cleopatra’s monument just as in the Globe. Antony was brought through the pit aisle to the stage front and shoved up onto stage, then dragged across it a short distance.

The soldiers that seized Cleopatra rushed on to the stage from the aisles of the adjoining lords boxes. None of them abseiled down on to the stage.

Disappointingly, the lighting did not reflect the supposed darker conditions in an indoor playhouse towards the end of an afternoon performance. This meant that “Finish, good lady…” was one of the production’s brightest moments rather than being a nod to the fact that gloom was descending.

The presence of candlelight allowed Cleopatra to look up at the candles when remarking “our lamp is spent” (4.15).

The smaller, at times slightly cramped, Playhouse stage caused a slight problem for Eve Best as she approached the throne for the play’s climatic suicide sequence. Iras had collapsed dead on top of the end of Cleopatra’s train, which meant that when Eve Best started on her final steps, she was obliged to tug on the train in order to free it. She tripped and fell back onto the throne knocking it slightly sideways, the angle of the throne detracting somewhat from the geometric simplicity of Cleopatra’s upright, still figure.

Eve Best

Advertisements

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.