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.
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.
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.
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.