The Shoemaker’s Holiday
by Thomas Dekker
Directed by Philip Breen
The Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon,
Wednesday 4th February 2015, 13.30
Ben Allen – Askew
Ross Armstrong – Warner
Daniel Boyd – Ralph Damport
Vincent Carmichael – Earl of Lincoln
Laura Cubitt – Seamstress
Hedydd Dylan – Jane Damport
Sandy Foster – Sybil
William Gaminara – Sir Roger Oatley
Michael Grady-Hall – Lovell
Jack Holden – Skipper/The King
Andrew Langtree – Dodger
Joel MacCormack – Firk
Tom McCall – Hodge (originally played by Michael Hodgson)
Josh O’Connor – Rowland Lacy
Vivien Parry – Margery Eyre
Thomasin Rand – Rose Oatley
David Troughton – Simon Eyre
Jamie Wilkes – Hammon
The third RSC Dekker play in a year, following on from his collaborative The Roaring Girl and The Witch of Edmonton. This was written on his own, in 1599 and highly popular at the time. The programme notes enriched the background. This play was written for The Rose Theatre, very close to the Globe. The Globe opened in 1599, and the rivalry with the pre-existing Rose Theatre was explicit. So in The Shoemaker’s Holiday the leading female character is Rose (remember which theatre we’re in). Just along the road, The Globe in the same year of 1599, had Henry V talking of “this wooden O” and As You Like It with the line All the WORLD’s a stage. There is a cogent argument that The Shoemaker’s Holiday is a considered antidote to the flag-waving of Henry V. This is the French wars from the other side, the view from the reluctant people back in England. Just as Shakespeare does, when Ralph the cobbler returns home lame from the French wars, there is a joke about a different disability being the usual ailment of those returning (venereal disease). In response, Shakespeare’s third play of 1599, Julius Caesar, opens with a stroppy cobbler (shoemaker) arguing the toss.
Until the dissolution of the monarchies between 1536 and 1541, major cities had annual mystery play cycles, as in surviving cycles from Coventry, Wakefield, York and Chester. There were lost cycles at fourteen or fifteen other cities. The mystery plays were funded by the trade guilds. So the fishmongers might do the feeding of the 5000 or Jonah and the Whale, the boat makers would do Noah’s Ark, maybe the tailors would do Joseph and his coat of many colours. They spent a fortune on the productions. They got banned as part of the old order, but guilds continued to sponsor pageants and tableaux in Elizabethan times. So we have moved on 70 years and we have a play all about the Gentle Craft (shoemaking … and The Gentle Craft was an alternative title for The Shoemaker’s Holiday) and the feast of St Hugh (patron saint of shoemakers) and Leadenhall (the shoemakers Guildhall). Was The Shoemaker’s Holiday sponsored, i.e, funded by the guild? Banks do it nowadays. It could be seen as extended advert for their guild. I wonder. There is so much about the virtues of shoemakers and their guild.
The play is a contrast to most Elizabethan drama. The common folk sound common in contrasts to the aristocrats, and there’s a powerful “Up the Workers!” theme that would warm the heart of Billy Bragg. Thematically, it’s set in the 15th century French Wars (like Henry V) which was when the Shoemakers Guild was establishing the Shrove Tuesday holiday and coming to prominence, as was the city government in London … think Dick Whittington (there are some parallels). What’s important is the strong anti-war theme. In 1599 an army of 16,000 was being dispatched to fight in Ireland, in a bloody casualty-heavy conflict. The admirable programme tells us that ordinary men were press-ganged into the army – there were cases of both churches and theatres being surrounded and the men forcibly conscripted. If Dekker had mentioned the current Irish wars he would have ended up with his head on the block, so a quick remove to a century before and France. This is the background against which the comedy is set.
The shoemakers petition for Ralph to be released from conscription
The story: Rowland Lacy is a nephew of the Earl of Lincoln. He is in love with Rose, daughter of the Lord Mayor, Sir Roger Oatley. At the start he is commissioned as a colonel to lead a regiment to the French wars. He decides to desert, paying a friend to go in his place. At this point the shoemakers, led by their master Simon Eyre, arrive to petition him (as colonel). Their man Ralph has been conscripted. He’s newly married. Can he be allowed to stay with his wife? Rowland refuses the petition and Ralph is packed off to the wars. But Rowland stays. Ralph leaves his wife Jane a pair of elaborately decorated shoes as a keepsake.
Simon Eyre (David Troughton) meets Rowland (Josh O’Connor) disguised as a Dutchman.
The Earl and the Mayor disapprove of the match with Rowland, and Rose is sent off to the country with her maid Sybil. Rowland happens to speak Dutch and learned shoemaking in his wastrel days in Wittenberg. Dekker chose Wittenberg, home of Martin Luther, as the place for Rowland’s dissolute youth! So Rowland dresses up in Dutch trousers and clogs and applies for a job with Simon Eyre. The other journeymen, Hodge and Firk like him. He gets the job. Ralph’s old job. Due to speaking Dutch, he brokers a deal with a Dutch sea skipper that earns Eyre a fortune, and starts Eyre’s ascent to sheriff, then alderman and eventually Lord Mayor. This is progressive through the play. This is A Bit of A Do territory, a fine early example of the nouveaux riches upwardly mobile unsophisticated people jokes we British love so much. Mr & Mrs Eyre are a prime example as they dress in more and more finery and Margery Eyre assumes more airs and graces.
Simon & Margery Eyre: Stage one of their finery
In the country, an aristocrat, Hammon, tries to woo Rose, but gets nowhere. Hammon goes to London and sets his eyes on Jane, Ralph’s wife, instea. To lure her into marriage he produces papers saying Ralph is dead … she is illiterate.
At this point, Ralph limps back from the wars, lame, one side of his face disfigured. He rejoins the shoemakers. (In a poignant scene here, Rowland watches Ralph return, crippled … no words in the script, but we feel his guilt at sending him to war while he stayed home). Earlier we saw soldiers limping across the background, carrying a stretcher while snow was falling.
Meanwhile Eyre goes to see Oatley for a jolly, taking his men as Morris dancers. Rose recognizes Rowland. They elope.
In London, Jane has agreed to marry Hammon. He sends her elaborate shoe as a pattern for her wedding shoes to Eyre’s shoemaking workshop. Guess what? The shoe goes to Ralph, who recognizes it. The shoemakers set off (all for one, one for all, mood here) and rescue Jane from Hammon’s greasy clutches by force.
Margery Eyre in full finery (Vivien Parry)
The long ending (after all much of the plot has been resolved) involves the King coming to dinner with Eyre and agreeing to pardon Rowland and overruling the Earl and Oatley’s attempts to annul the marriage. This scene is rich with opportunities for Simon and Margery Eyre to display their airs, graces and over-familiarity to the King’s majesty (all brilliant here). The ending is first-rate, It’s happy days but then the king announces that they’re back off to fight the French. In this production the whole cast freezes with fixed looks of horror during a long slow fade.
It’s a very good play. Period. It’s well worth reviving, and this production is as good as it’s possible to get on Elizabethan costume, with the maximum contrast between the workers in dusty browns and the richly apparelled nobility. The half armour is elaborate and excellent. Costume is late 16th century in style, not the 15th century of the action. They wear the slashed padded knee length full breeches (slops) which as a child I’d draw an Elizabethan in … but very few productions seem to use.
We hadn’t known David Troughton was in it when we booked, though we’d have gone a long way just to see him … I still remember him in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure. Simon Eyre is a BIG rollicking part that brings out his full Falstaffian power. Vivien Parry is Margery Eyre, creating a marvellous bickering shouting double act. She starts off the play looking like a scarecrow and ends up via several transitions looking like Queen Elizabeth I complete with huge bustle and white face. ‘You Islington whitepot!’ is one of many pieces of abuse he hurls at her, and which for some reason, we found hilarious. Maybe it was the idea of a transfer to the Almeida.
Most of the cast are in their RSC debut production. The play was booked with the 2014 series, but doesn’t seem to fit the “Roaring Girls Season” at the Swan, so hopefully this is a major part of the company for later in 2015.
I do see some of the troubles with reading reviews before. Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph describes the secene where Hannon tells Jane that Ralph is dead. He said:
That wooing scene – in which Jamie Wilkes’ preening, dandified Hammon produces a bogus death-report and presses his amorous case – must rank as one of the most painfully funny scenes in the canon. “Forget the dead; love them that are alive,” he obtusely insists.
Hammon (Jamie Wilkes) persuades Jane (Heydd Dylan) that Ralph is dead
We both read that over lunch and were eagerly awaiting it, so it fell flat for us. In contrast, no reviewer mentions the scene where Rowland in Dutch disguise (Josh O’Connor) gets to Rose (Thomasin Rand) on the pretext of measuring her up for a pair of shoes, and we thought that one of the funniest in the play. Rowland’s full comic Dutch accent reminded us that “double Dutch” dates from this period when British-Dutch maritime rivalry was beginning and ascending rapidly. Funny Dutchman is a 21st century oddity, as every Dutch person I meet speaks better English than most native speakers.
The play is full of good small parts. Sandy Foster has a comic cameo as Sybil, Rose’s garrulous maid. Hodge (Michael Hodgson – was he cast for his name?) and Firk (Joel MacCormack) the journeymen at Eyre’s shoemaking shop are both strong parts, well done. Firk is such an easy name to play with (especially as Firk mentions his own name a lot) that I wondered if it was intended originally to play it as a minced oath (i.e. like feck, or fug). It doesn’t really here, but maybe the hovering possibility is more subtle. As Dekker has a serving woman in the Eyre household called Cicily Bumtrinket who “farts in her sleep” (and at several other points in this production) I doubt that subtlety was on Dekker’s priority list.
The King (Jack Holden) has no name, and only appears in the last scene, which he then dominates … quite a task with the Eyres in full flow beside you. I thought the effete boyish king ruling on all these matters was superbly performed and very funny, especially as he turns the whole thing on its head in the last two lines.
The opening tableau
Things I’ll never forget about Phillip Breen’s production are the tableau that opens the play with the full cast, more or less setting out the story (but not entirely) then the frozen faces in the tableau at the end. An important production of an important play.
Usual RSC standard. Perfect.