May 9, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Honest Man’s Fortune @ Canterbury Christ Church University

I’ve remarked before now on a show I’ve been involved in behind the scenes, but never before on something in which I’ve acted. I use "acting" in the loosest possible sense, and the less said about my board-treading the better, but it was a pleasure this weekend to be involved in a staged reading of The Honest Man’s Fortune in Canterbury as part of a Renaissance colloquium organised by Steve Orman.

The play, by Field and Fletcher (and Massinger?), is a fun citizen comedy from 1613, that begins with the ruination of the titular honest man, Montaigne, and traces his fall at the hands of creditors, his reduction to servitude in the house of a virtuous lady (Lamira) and his restoration to riches as the eventual chosen husband of the lady. Alongside this, Montaigne’s persecutor – the jealous Lord Orleans – turfs out his wife over suspicion of an ongoing affair with Montaigne and falls out with his brother-in-law, Amiens. The two are eventually reconciled with each other and with their defamed wife/sister following a duel plot partially stage-managed by Montaigne’s loyal supporters, Longaville and Dubois. Three comic malefactors partially responsible for Montaigne’s fall (Laverdure, La Poope and Mallicorne) present themselves as suitors to Lamira and are rebuffed by Montaigne; and Montaigne’s loyal page Veramour is pursued by Laverdure, convinced that the boy is actually a woman. It is only revealed at the end, amid a flurry of winking to other plays, that Veramour is in fact the boy he always appeared to be.

The play is a surprisingly tight mixture of elements familiar from texts as diverse as Philaster, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The Taming of the Shrew, Timon of Athens and even The Odyssey in its greedy suitors. In performance, despite very little rehearsal, it proved to be surprisingly stageable and entertaining. While it was obviously impossible for me to watch it properly while performing in it, I’ll just make a few observations here.

In Brian McMahon’s hands, Montaigne was a pleasingly complex combination of wistful persecuted hero and vocal righter of wrongs. "Honest" appeared to be key, rather than "good" – his test of Lady Orlean’s virtue was initially extremely creepy and lecherous; his readiness to draw against Amiens and the officers showed him proactive; and he took no small pleasure in his final passing of judgement against the dishonourable suitors. This made him far more interesting than the stoic sufferer I’d initially expected, and a much more compelling protagonist.

The play fell rather conveniently into two halves, the first dealing primarily with Montaigne’s fall at the hands of creditors, lawyers etc. and the second moving into a much more domestic sphere in and around Lamira’s house. Longaville (Orman) and Dubois (myself) are quite prominent in the first half and much less so in the second, Dubois in particular being practically forgotten about by the text. The text appears to set up a great deal with the two, particularly their agreement to feign loyalty to the great lords (which provided great scope for a lot of shouting, bravado and flailing of imaginary swords), which then unwinds in one key scene as the Lady Orleans is apparently shot. This isn’t just a note on the amount I had to do (!) but speaks interestingly to the change in tone and focus, with male friendships and public relationships replaced by a greater concern for heterosexual union in the second half. The unifying factor in this was Kelley Costigan’s melancholic Veramour, always positioned to the side of the stage in the first half declaring his devotion for his master; but moving to more central roles in the second half as his gender came into question. The page dominated the final act too, Costigan bringing out the playfulness of Veramour when posing as a girl, before revealing his true gender.

The comic characters were surprisingly effective. Martin Wiggins brilliantly stepped in at short notice to play Charlotte and La Poope. The former began by playing on the type of the lecherous maid-servant, flirting shamelessly with the humbled Montaigne and providing a clearly undesirable contrast to the higher-class ladies; but later Wiggins brought out the sweetness of Charlotte’s loyalty, culminating in the revelation that she had only been wooing Montaigne on behalf of her mistress. As La Poope, meanwhile, he was a gruff and blustering sailor whose disregard for social niceties made him a constantly entertaining presence. Nicola Boyle contrasted ideally as the courtier Laverdure, whose character was defined primarily by the amusing banter with Veramour during their flirtation and the shared cowardice with La Poope, the two cowering in doorways rather than joining in battles. I also particularly enjoyed the contrast between the two men in the final moments, as La Poope took Laverdure’s place and embraced Veramour as a potential new cabin boy. I took on Mallicorne at the last minute and didn’t really do the role justice – he begins as a fairly unambiguously treacherous character, tricking Montaigne’s money away from him and then smugly revealing he has arranged for his arrest. Then, however, he tags along with the comic duo of Laverdue and La Poope, but I struggled to work out how he integrates with their already-established dynamic.

Alex Samson was the villain of the piece as the jealous Orleans, giving the role the forcefulness necessary to drive the action of the first half – he unseats Montaigne, drives away his wife and Amiens, encourages the conflicts between Longaville and Dubois and, finally, maintains the negative energy that leads up to the climactic staged assassination of Lady Orleans. He is only accorded a relatively quick penance, but Samson stuck to the principle that the character is essentially noble, which allowed his about-face to carry conviction and a consistency in the vehemence with which he repented. He was contrasted throughout (in a play full of doubles, these contrasts abounded) with Astrid Stilma’s Amiens. Stilma brought a complexity to the role similar to that accorded to Montaigne – essentially virtuous, but with a temper and aggression that argued for virtue as an active and combative quality rather than a passive state. Much of the post-show discussion focussed on Amiens, who is interestingly established as an honest man at the play’s opening and remains throughout a potential mate for Lamira, but who is ultimately left disappointed at the play’s conclusion, despite his pleasure in Lamira’s choice of Montaigne. I particularly liked Stilma’s sense of sadness as she deferred to Montaigne at this final point.

Finally, the two women stood as types of female virtue, but once more interestingly contrasted. Jackie Watson (I hope I’ve spelled that correctly) played Lady Orleans as patient victim, pushed away by her husband but remaining loyal, and acting throughout as a voice of conscience. Claire Bartram’s Lamira, meanwhile, was interestingly independent of male attachments, aloof with the suitors and tender of her servants. She held court throughout and, in some respects, took the Ducal role of the guarantor of order and restitution. It was an interestingly powerful role for a woman, despite the voiced objectification of her by the suitors, and it was fascinating to see her preside over the final scene and put Montaigne through the performance of espousing virtue and condemnation, in a gender-reversal of the conclusion of Shrew.

So, a fun event, even if I can’t review it properly! It’s a fascinating play, and generated some interesting post-show discussion. Hopefully the publication of a new edition in the Malone Society reprints this year will encourage further production, and with the re-opening of the Swan, it’d be wonderful if the RSC could explore it at a professional level in the near future.

Posted in Theatre review