The City Madam
by Philip Massinger
The Swan Theatre
2nd June 2011
Lucy Briggs-Owen – Anne
Christopher Chilton – Dingem
Sara Crowe – Lady Frugal
Liz Crowther – Millicent
Kammy Darweish – Old Tradewell
Nicholas Day – Lord Lacy
Christopher Ettridge – Holdfast
Christopher Godwin – Sir John Frugal
Michael Grady-Hall – Scuffle
Alex Hassell – Sir Maurice
Felix Hayes – Mr. Plenty
Matti Houghton – Mary
Nathaniel Martello-White – Goldwire
Andrew Melville – Hoist
Simeon Moore – Stargaze
Harry Myers – Getall
Pippa Nixon – Shave’em
Chiké Okonkwo – Tradewell
Oliver Rix – Ramble
Timothy Speyer – Penury
Jo Stone-Fewings – Luke Frugal.
Director – Dominic Hill
Designer – Tom Piper
Music and Sound – Dan Jones
As in all RSC Stratford productions The City Madam got the full works, a cast of eighteen, six musicians, elaborate and expensive puppet interludes, fabulous costumes, and lots of theatrical devices.
Massinger’s The City Madam was written in 1632, just ten years before the outbreak of the Civil War, and is full of the social tensions that led up to it. We judge the roundheads and cavaliers nowadays by their clothes, and some descriptions in The City Madam show we’re probably right to do so, even if some prominent Parliamentarians, such as Fairfax, had flowing locks.
Luke Frugal with sister-in-law, Lady Frugal
The central character is Luke (Jo Stone-Fewings), who has been rescued from prison by his wealthy and newly ennobled brother Sir John Frugal. Frugal’s wife and two daughters treat him like a servant. They are only interested in finery. The girls are a great double act (as they will be in Midsummer Night’s Dream later in the season).
Lady Frugal and her Two lovely daughters, Ann and Mary
Luke is something of the Frugal household shop steward, defending the rights of Frugal’s apprentices, and advising them to skim some of his wealth for themselves. He defends the debtors who are in thrall to Sir John, and gets them an extension. He is apparently sincere.
The plot also involves two suitors, both cavaliers, for the hands of the two pretty daughters, who, with the mother, function very much as Cinderella’s stepmother and the two ugly sisters. These suitors are Sir Maurice Lacy, fop of this parish, and the Yorkshire accented, Mr Plenty.
The twist is that Sir John pretends to have retreated to a monastery and bequeaths, Luke, erstwhile defender of the downtrodden, the keys to the safe and his estates. In fact, Sir John, with the two cavaliers, decides to masquerade as Native-American “kings” from Virgina and observe the action in their absence. Sir John left instructions that these three were to be supported in his house after his departure.
Well Tony Blair, sorry, Luke Frugal, once in power, moves swiftly from defender of the little people to tyrant himself. He’s been dressed in puritan black himself so far (as have most of the cast), and strips the women of their finery, making them remove their wigs, and don drab shifts and green aprons. Green aprons must have had a significance in Massinger’s day. Perhaps they were the garb of the lowliest servants, while the ladies’ maids had crisp white linen. So he’s soon treating everyone just as badly as he was treated. When he decides to adopt rich clothing, it is significantly the gold skirt and red shoes of Shave ‘em (the whore) that he appropriates.
Shave-em makes merry with Goldwire, Sir John’s apprentice
Shave’em has been making merry with the apprentices, who have money to burn from skimming old Sir John’s accounts. Luke has them all arrested. And confiscates their possessions, of course. Power means whoring himself, in this case dressing himself in a whore’s golden skirt rather than embarking on multi-million pound lecture tours. It’s literal, but in a play with character names like Frugal and Plenty, these things aren’t meant to be subtle. Sir John returns and Luke gets his comeuppance. The cavaliers reappear lifted from the pit below the stage as statues, that come to life.
The political reference to a recent glorious leader above may be akin to Private Eye on a bad day, but I think that level of political contrast was there in the original, and brought out and up-to-date in this production. The cavaliers versus roundheads theme runs right through British history in spirit, even if it never strictly follows party lines. Blair came across as a cavalier; Gordon Brown a definite tight-lipped roundhead. The chippy character who gets rich and joins the elite and turns out as bad as they are, is a stock character in British comedy. Think of John Prescott being photographed playing croquet on the lawns at his Deputy Prime Minister’s grace-and-favour mansion.
Charles Spencer, reviewing the production in The Daily Telegraph says it better than me:
There’s a startling moment in Dominic Hill’s lively production of Philip Massinger’s The City Madam (1632) when a London prostitute called Shave’Em is discovered on her bed avidly reading Hello! magazine’s coverage of the recent royal wedding.
It’s a neat touch, because although the show is mostly firmly set in the 17th century, this is a play that chimes with our own times, presenting a world of filthy-rich traders, naked social ambition, vulgar obsession with fashion, personal astrologers and the kind of greed that makes Fred “The Shred” Goodwin look like the cuddliest of philanthropists.
The production excels in milking every nuance out of every line. Christopher Godwin (Sir John Frugal) was in the film of Porridge way back, and I thought his Estuary accent and performance owed something to observing Peter Vaughan’s jail kingpin, Grouty, in that film and TV series. Whatever, the Estuary accent makes it clear that he’s a self-made man. Mr Plenty’s Yorkshire accent reminds that you for this burly and wealthy cavalier, where there’s muck there’s brass. Lord Lacy’s fruity mannered delivery sets him apart, as the real aristocrat.
Jacobean drama post-Shakespeare is something I’ve seen little of on stage. (Technically, it’s Caroline Drama, as James I died in 1625). I don’t think the heavy-handed allegory of names in Pilgrim’s Progress style helps. It says it all … Sir John Frugal, Lord Lacy (adorned with lace); Hoist, Penury and Fortune are the debtors. Mr Plenty is the wealthy cavalier. Goldwire and Tradewell are the apprentice traders; Stargaze is the astrologer. We also have Ding ’em, Holdall, Scuffle, Secret and Getall. Luke is the only complex character.
The three Indian (if I may) chiefs, are dressed as kings in early engravings. America fascinated London in the 1630s. We’re just a few years after the Mayflower voyage to New England, and tales of the first lost colony in Virginia are current. The Americans behind us found the lines about the horrors of life in Virginia hilarious. They were probably Marylanders.
Lady Frugal gets her hair done
As in the companion production, Cardenio, (with the same cast) the Swan’s multiple entrances to the platform stage are utilised to make it a very fast production. Something is always happening. People cross the platform to give an air of bustle. I’m not sure that the large open platform stage was a necessary part of Jacobean drama. I thought that magic and music (as in The Tempest, and in this) were supposed to be the signs of productions indoors in the great halls. But who knows? The more popular plays would have persisted in the larger outdoor theatres until the Civil War closed them in 1642, and the best guess is they used Blackfriars Hall in the winter, and open air in the summer. Records show that The City Madam was first performed in Blackfriars Hall.
On a very hot and stuffy night, I was surprised to see a dozen empty seats after the interval, and delighted that three of them were directly in front of us. It was hot, the text is unfamiliar to most (me included), but I can’t see why any theatre lover would have deserted such a sparky lively production. But that is an unfortunate Stratford phenomenon. Some of us go to huge trouble to get tickets. Others are on the Oxford-Stratford one day package with the Oxford college tour (30 minutes), Stratford Shakespeare’s birthplace admission included, chicken in the basket, a gen-u-wine RSC production, and free cocktails back at the hotel.