The Knight of The Burning Pestle
by Francis Beaumont
Directed by Adele Thomas
Sunday 14th December 2014, 14.30
The Citizen (Paul Daniels) & His Wife (Pauline McLynn)
CAST (in alphabetical order, as befits such tight ensemble playing)
Theatre Host: Paul; Brendan
Michael Merrythought: Giles Cooper
Jasper Merrythought: Jolyon Coy
Citizen: Phil Daniels
Luce: Louise Ford
Boy: Samuel Hargreaves
Tim: Dennis Herdman
Citizen’s Wife: Pauline McLynn
Mistress Merrythought: Hannah McPake
Rafe: Matthew Needham
George: Dean Nolan
Merrythought: Paul Rider
Venturewell: David Tarkenter
Humphrey: Dickon Tyrell
Rafe and George “the dwarf” (from the earlier production)
Ah. Auto-correction on computers. Francis Beaumont would have approved of what mine did to this title: Night of The Burning Pessary. It never tired of “correcting” knight to night and I hope I’ve found them all. It has a sense of humour … in the previous sentence it aptly changed correcting to corrupting.
This was the second production ever at the new Wanamaker Playhouse in early 2014, and it’s been revived within the year for the Christmas season. Though the production is the same, there are cast changes since the earlier run, in particular Luce and Jasper are different. So many of the photos online are “wrong” for this December-January run. You can tell, because the current stage is Christmas garlanded.
The play is perfect for the Wanamaker stage, because it’s known that the first production was in the Blackfriars private theatre in 1607. That one, performed by ‘The Children of Blackfriars’ was a disaster because the audience thought the send-up of a play, “The London Merchant.” was just a dreadful old play, perhaps. The Knight of The Burning Pestle is the first full-length parody or pastiche play in English (as far as we know). Francis Beaumont wrote it at the age of 22 and it has the vigour and broad humour of youth. It was also written five years before the first publication in English of Don Quixote. Beaumont’s short life, 1585-1616 means he was born as the first Shakespeare plays were being performed, and died the same year as the Bard.
Shakespeare was fond of parody play-within-a-play sections, but this goes the whole hog. It starts off by breaking the fourth wall, when a supposed production of “The London Merchant” is interrupted by a grocer (The Citizen) and his wife from the audience, who mount the stage and insist on something more respectful of the new middle classes. Their apprentice Rafe is put forward as the suggested lead as a knight errant. The company then have to incorporate Rafe and his suggested heroic deeds into their existing production, supposedly on the fly.
Excited audience: The Citizen and his Wife
I was enthralled and intrigued. The intrinsic play is quintessential English humour. It won’t have been the first in its genre perhaps (you never know), but it’s the first recorded, and it’s seminal. The greatest Jacobean comedy? Reviews mention the line to Monty Python & The Holy Grail. Indeed, but its more populist than that, the knowing send up of the genre you’re performing has a direct line to Morecambe & Wise with Ernie’s “the plays what I wrote” and even more to The Two Ronnies and the historical ones among the Carry On films. So much of what you might call “post-modern” if you want to be pretentious, starts here. There are actual lines too, as when The Citizen’s Wife gets up to recommend Rafe in the play, looks at the audience, and says “Sorry, I’ve never been on a stage before.” Compare the wonderful Two Ronnies sketch where the butcher has to read in a part in an Am Dram play with constant apologies, “Sorry, I’ve never been in a play before.” Then there’s the Wife’s sniffy comment that the romantic leads are older than the parts they’re playing. There’s the misplaced props in the wrong scene. I was just thinking throughout, “It all starts here.” It’s a line which differentiates English language comedy.
It’s wonderful watching the alleged cast of “The London Merchant” getting ever angrier and more put off their stroke by “the citizen and his wife” in the front row of the pit. They chatter, comment on the action, pass round sweets to the real audience, go out and buy beers … all perfectly normal behaviour at our local Empire Cinema, but it sends “the actors” here into paroxysms of rage, and hissy-fits.
One of the staging problems is that the antics of the citizens watching understandably draw attention away from the main plot, or rather plots. This is after all a mash-up of three levels of play.
Briefly, Venturewell is a merchant with a daughter, Luce. He wants to marry Luce off to a dandy, Humphrey. However, Luce is in love with his apprentice, Jasper. Jasper’s mother, Mistress Merrythought, prefers her milksop son Michael to Jasper … Mistress Merrythought and Michael are a double act in matching ginger wigs. The dad, Merrythought, is a cheerful drunkard, who sings his way through life, breaking into song at every opportunity. So a total pain.
Misteress Merrythought & Michael (from the earlier production)
Rafe’s noble deeds break into the plot, as when he terrifies Mistress Merrythought in Waltham Forest and she flees abandoning her jewels. She is leaving her husband. Yes, of course, the “forest” (or to Rafe “desert”) is part of the plot as in so many Shakespeare plays … Rafe demonstrates his acting prowess at the start by reading a Hotspur part from Henry IV in a flat voice. Jasper arrives in the forest having planned to meet Luce. She’s told Humphrey to meet her there too and the suitors fight. Rafe arrives on the scene, thinking again he’s rescuing a damsel in distress. There is a long round the theatre Rafe – Jasper fight and Rafe is soundly beaten. He retreats to an inn.
Meanwhile, Jasper decides to test Luce’s love by threatening her with a sword, but she is rescued by Venturewell and Humphrey. There’s a bit of a problem at the inn. Rafe thinks that he’s a guest in a house, but the landlord demands payment for the ale (She Stoops to Conquer?) and Rafe is induced to fight Barbaroso, a giant barber (on stilts). The citizens demand Rafe gets a bit of love interest so he is suddenly in Moldavia wooing the princess. He rejects her.
Jasper pretends to be dead, and so discovers Luce still loves him. He appears as a fake ghost and sends Humphrey packing. Venturewell gives his blessing to the Jasper-Luce marriage. Then the citizens are annoyed at the happy ending without Rafe, and demand the addition of a Rafe death scene, which is of course lengthy with an arrow through his head the whole time.
Rafe (Matthew Needham) – from the earlier production
The “watching” plot with The Citizen and the Wife should include two members of the “acting company” … the Host, who is like an announcer and company manager, and “the Boy” who signals act changes etc as well as playing music. Both are the actors’ company representatives in dealing with “the citizens.”
It wouldn’t work in a theatre that was much bigger than the Wanamaker Playhouse, and it also needs the thrust stage, because it brings the audience in constantly. Yes, there are studio theatres and the Young Vic, Trafalgar in the round and the Donmar, but I reckon the Swan or Royal Shakespeare are too large … they might just get away with it … but a proscenium theatre wouldn’t work at all. The size here is perfect. Even so, there must be detail you lose. The Jasper and Rafe chase scene goes right round the outside with the fake windows open and there was a wonderful Rafe / Jasper fight right outside the window next to us, but 80% would have missed it. As we would have missed other bits (and the upper gallery would have wondered what was going on). But they use the upper gallery for bits too, and there is so much interaction that most must get close to some great moment. I did wonder about the citizen and his wife being seated at the front of the Pit … in the original 17th century Blackfriars Theatre people paid to sit on chairs on the stage so as to be seen in their finery, which is how this would have been staged, and that’s the default for Pyramus & Thisbe in Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Athenian nobility watching from the stage. Having experienced the upstairs, I wondered if you could see the “citizens” at all from the back rows square on to the stage. From our lower gallery position, they were only three metres away right by us. They did climb up on stage for bits, but passing round the beer and sweets was so much fun. The stage is so small here that there was no alternative location … the mass fight scene was one of the best choreographed pieces of action I’ve seen in years and the funniest, and takes up every inch of space. In another fight I loved Humphrey being punched repeatedly and clapping his hands for the sound effects, but always just a tad too late. Jasper spitting out “popcorn teeth” after a punch is a pantomime classic. The fight with Barbarosa who is on stilts is as good knockabout as you’ll ever see.
As are the brokers men. The duo of clowns, here Tim and George. They’re stagehands – the pre-show is ten minutes of very funny candle lighting … which is needed because as ever, that’s the lighting. Six sets of candles. They get recruited as Rafe’s squire and “dwarf,” The dwarf part goes to the biggest bloke. A lot of the physical knockabout comedy is centred on them. Tim also has to play the Princess of Moldavia (with beard) because the knight errant sections which the citizens demand are avoided by the main cast. Tim does a great “flying piece” from the top (and of course they forget to pull him back up).
The scene of the evening though goes to Jasper and Luce, supposedly playing out their dramatic love scene and breaking into song in the plot, but in the layer below, the two actors are desperately trying to upstage each other so breaking into a fight. The song sounds just like the Disney classic love song at the end of a major animated film, but played on period instruments.
Phil Daniels is “the citizen”, after a summer at the Globe as Endobarbus in Anthony & Cleopatra. Matthew Needham moves from Antipholus of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors to Rafe, apprentice playing knight errant, in this one. We have seen many of these actors at The Globe this year. The ensemble has not a weak spot.
Costumes are rightly period, and memorable. Judging from a Google Image search with photos from earlier in the year, they have been tweaked and improved for this Christmas one month run. Humphrey’s first pink costume is perfect, and as the dandy, he gets plentiful changes of costume (as do pantomime dames of course). I liked the “team” idea in a convoluted and necessarily chaotic plot. The Merrythought family are all dressed in green. No one else wears green. It’s subtle, but it helps tie in who is who. Rafe gets a knightly costume, with a hilarious “horse” tied around his waist. Wanamaker’s Playhouse has an advantage in reviving plays … no set to build and store and re-erect. The theatre is the set.
You have to wonder about all those candles. At one point Luce has to carry a four-candle candelabra (characters often do this for close up light), and in the action her long sleeve snuffed two candles. They must use fireproofed costumes. I’ve always wondered about flowing robes and the close proximity of candles. They do break their own rules a little on the box with the burning pestle, Rafe’s phallic emblem, which is revealed at key moments. The box has electric light in it. It could hardly have a candle.
There are two four-minute interludes where you can stand and stretch (though Tim, George & The Boy dance through these) as well as a conventional interval. As with ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore a few weeks ago, we noticed empty seats after the interval. I would say eight near us. These are very expensive premium seats. We had decided if we were going to take a full day and drive 110 miles each way, there was no point in having a poor view. But eight people decided to quit at the interval and that’s from the best seats. It’s certainly not the play, because that forces me to amend my “Best of 2014” list which was put up two weeks ago. But ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore makes my Top Ten too. I really feel that the backless benches are too much for some people’s backs and necks. I said so on the last review. Yes, people were used to it in 1607. We aren’t. I find it a trial, though less so in this production because it never let up humour or excitement for a minute. But some people make the effort, pay a lot of money and jump ship. I still feel the Globe were wrong not to at least put a 3 inch wide bar behind the benches.
The Wanamaker Playhouse is a fantastic time-machine experience. The productions are of the highest quality, and the audience-cast ratio is such that tickets are a bargain, even at the higher priced best seats. But the benches were a step too far. I do have a tip given to me by a chiropractor twenty years ago. It works. Take a normal hardback book. Place it under one buttock on the hard seat. After 15 or 20 minutes, move it to the other buttock for 15-20 minutes. Then remove it altogether for 15-20 minutes. Then repeat. It stops the back locking in one position. It works on car journeys too.
First rate, in the matching Wanamaker design.