August 9, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

The Shoemaker’s Holiday (Black Sun) @ The Dell, Stratford–upon–Avon

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Since its institution during the Complete Works Festival, the Stratford open air festival at the Dell has become an annual event, offering free theatre to Stratford passers-by. While it’s now relocated slightly further along the river, the spirit of the outdoor performances has remained the same: accessible, entertaining and pleasantly brief.

Perhaps most exciting prospect in this year’s programme was the opportunity to finally see a bit of Thomas Dekker, in the guise of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, performed by Black Swan under the direction of Jemma Gross. Modestly trimmed to fit into 90 minutes flat, it’s an ebullient comedy eminently suited to a casual, open-air environment.

That said, the company made few concessions to an audience unfamiliar with the play. It took a while for the cast to warm up to the vocal demands of performing to a widely-spread audience on a noisy riverbank, not helped by passers-by oblivious to those of us trying to listen. Character relationships, particularly the animosity between Lincoln and Oatley and their connections to the young people, were thus very weakly established, leaving the audience struggling to make sense of the plot until the various threads began to pull together halfway through. It’s a difficult balance to strike; but if you’re trying to introduce an unfamiliar play to a casual audience, it only makes sense to provide a few signposts.

Those are the gripes; but it’s testament to the good humour and festive atmosphere evoked by the company that an appreciative audience stuck with a production that provided some extremely interesting readings. Perhaps unavoidably, the prominence of the shoemaker himself was somewhat reduced. Albert Clack’s Simon Eyre was a bluff and good-humoured gent, amusing when strutting in his new finery and treating his colleagues and juniors with an avuncular air. The story of his progression to Lord Mayor, the christening of Leadenhall, founding of the market and the setting aside of Shrove Tuesday as an apprentice holiday, however, would have been far more familiar to an early modern audience; where Eyre presumably stood out through reputation in the play’s original performances, here he became a background character to the more interesting romantic plots.

Tom Radford’s Lacy and Elizabeth Webster’s Rose inevitably drew most of the attention. Rose was something of a revelation; the traditional waif-like heroine was here reimagined as a vivacious and robust figure of bawdy fun, who yanked Lacy about, flirted teasingly with Hammon and couldn’t keep her hands off her new husband even in the King’s presence. The equality of the lovers gave the production an interesting dynamic, riffing on Romeo and Juliet (particularly in the masque scene) to emphasise their shared and proactive love as the driving force of the play. The boisterousness of Webster’s Rose additionally served to render Lacy’s rather passive disguise as Hans all the more amusing; Sybil all but dragged the heroic but rather bumbling Lacy out of his shop, and it was the women who took charge of hiding him as Oatley returned to find the lovers together.

The other most notable reading was that of Hammon, played by David Fensom. In the text, Hammon is something of an ambiguous figure: he pursues Rose, but applaudably gives up his claim on her refusal to marry him; then, woos Jane and, on the revelation of her husband’s name, offers her a letter which includes his name among the register of the dead. He then continues to press her, and finally relinquishes his claim when Ralph, Jane’s husband, interrupts their wedding day. While he does offer Ralph money for his wife, he takes the refusal in good part and gives husband and wife the money anyway as a gift before swearing off romance. The character is thus, in a generous reading, reasonably noble, although with several questions unanswered – such as, does he really believe the letter he gives to Jane? Here, Hammon became an entertainingly foppish comic villain: arrogant, swaggering and full of sickeningly OTT charm. Fensom livened up the stage on his every appearance, and his genial confidence made him a rather appealing figure. In Jane’s shop, he thought quickly upon hearing that Ralph was in the wars, and quickly added the name himself to a list of the dead (and even pointed it out when she was slow to find it in the list). By adding this knowing villainy to his actions, the subsequent scenes were conceived more as a comic confrontation in which the man was suitably deflated, although not for long. Upon swearing off wives, he suddenly caught a glance of someone in the audience, and threw himself down next to them. The rounds of applause which accompanied the close of his scenes identified the performance as one of the most successful, and it certainly added colour and zest to the plot.

The scenes in the shoemaker’s shop were pleasant, powered by fun comic performances from Edward Simpson (Hodge) and John Last (Firk). The joking over the language spoken by the Dutch (or "Dutch") characters was passed over rather too quickly, diminishing the amusement of Lacy’s scenes undercover, but the energy of Simpson and Last, whether drunk, scheming or petulant – gave the scenes the necessary camaraderie to make sense of a plot that depends on the fraternity of their craft. Ralph (James Rose) was played seriously within this environment, a rather wistful limping young man who was supported by his fellows to reclaim his bride, Anneka Harry, who similarly provided a straighter performance than might be expected in a role so infused with innuendo. It allowed for an interesting inversion: the love plot among the higher-class characters became a bawdy romp, while a tenderness was found between Ralph and Jane that elevated their plot beyond the merely amusing.

The more sober backdrop of the Hundred Years’ War was repeatedly brought to attention in an affection that had cast members spitting on the floor every time they mentioned France – even the demure Jane, who shrugged uncomfortably at the audience before joining in. Apart from one slightly unfortunate incident where an actor didn’t look before spitting directly in an audience member’s face (taken in remarkably good humour!), this was an effective way of emphasising the context for the story, and might perhaps have even led to a more serious interpretation – after all, a story of how the wives of soldiers fighting foreign wars cope has no small contemporary resonance. This would not, however, have been in keeping with the spirit of a production which embraced the play as romp. Despite taking a while to get going, this was a sympathetic and lively rendition of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, and a pleasingly offbeat addition to the Dell’s programme.

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