May 26, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The City Madam (RSC) @ The Swan, Stratford–upon–Avon

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It’s so wonderful to have the Swan back in action. Not only is the space itself one of my favourite places to see theatre, but its fundamental artistic remit offers so much scope for invention and discovery. How often does one get to see a full-scale production of a play like Philip Massinger’s The City Madam, performed by professionals at the top of their game and with the care and attention that an international-level company can give? Too rarely. And happily, Dominic Hill’s debut production for the RSC was superlatively good.

Some credit must go to Massinger, of course. The play is simple, and surprisingly moralistic (I was reminded, oddly, of The Good Person of Szechwan), but structurally satisfying. A chaotically funny first half established the outrageous characters of Caroline city comedy – the vain wife and her vacuous daughters, the foppish suitors, the red-faced uncouth countryman made rich, the scheming prentices and the delicate Lord. At the centre of this was Jo Stone-Fewings’s puritanical Luke Frugal, the humble ruined brother of a merchant, reduced to scorn and servitude at the hands of his proud sister-in-law. The first half established the many characters, the networks of usury and debt that pervaded London and, in a wonderfully comic scene, the refusal of the affected Sir Maurice (Alex Hassell) and the brusque Mr. Plenty (Felix Hayes) to wed Anne and Mary Frugal following their outlandish demands of their prospective husbands.

This was a play of two halves, however. The first half closed with the decision of Sir John Frugal (Christopher Godwin) to test his brother by pretending to retire to a monastery and awarding him control of his lands. Stone-Fewings turned from benevolent servant to tyrannous wretch, reducing his debtors, his prentices and finally his sister-in-law and nieces to nothing. While the laughter continued throughout this second half, Hill steered the tone of the production to the final condemnation of Luke as the back wall of the theatre opened up and he was turned out into a snowy wilderness for his repentance.

Stone-Fewings was sensational. His early humility came with an edge of bitterness that didn’t give the lie to his demeanour, but certainly suggested more to the character than the deference he offered. His plea on behalf of his brother’s debtors was a highlight of the first half, taking a matter-of-fact tone and appealing to decency, but creating an ensemble performance by making the debtors kneel and staying himself in constant motion in order to strengthen his own position.  More telling of his true nature, however, was his gulling of the two prentices, persuading them to begin embezzling money. Hill allowed the scene to linger on silences following Luke’s more pointed suggestions, the implications hanging in the air to point out their significance and the subtlety of what Luke was trying to achieve.

Following the award of money, however, Stone-Fewings broke loose. Amid some wonderfully OTT performances, particularly Hassell’s shrieking Maurice and Michael Grady-Hall’s similarly camp and thoroughly entertaining Scuffle, Stone-Fewings grew in stature and confidence to become a consummate performer, performing little flourishes to accompany his taunts and dancing in victory as his plans came to fruition. His greed and vindictiveness unhinged him but he never became entirely unsympathetic, at least not until he stood on a table in triumph as his debtors trooped mournfully around him in chains in the build-up towards the climax.

While Stone-Fewings carried the show, however, Hill packed the production to overflowing with witty performances, fluid spectacle and visual imagination. A wonderful showpiece featured the story of Orpheus and Eurydice played out with puppets, including a tremendous three-headed Cerberus with glowing eyes that burst up through Luke’s banquet table to snap at the carved lovers. The disguised Sir John developed the bizarre ability to flash bursts of fire from his hands; and the scene in Pippa Nixon’s Shave’em’s den (one of the most unpleasant character names ever invented, surely) was kinetic, violent and very amusing as the uncouth gallants were whipped out of her room.

The female characters were particularly well drawn. Sara Crowe as the shrill and vacuous Lady Frugal almost stole the show, while Lucy Briggs-Owen and Matti Houghton as the spoiled, pouting daughters were consistently entertaining. The beauty of these three performances was that they rendered the characters almost frustratingly awful in the early scenes, yet in such an innocent way that we were able to regain some sympathy for them as Luke reduced them to rags and caused them to weep in a corner. The scene where the girls made their demands of future husbands was an early highlight, with Mary and Anne entirely assured of their own desirability. Shave’em, meanwhile, was a typical Cockney prostitute who added colour to proceedings, but given extra depth by Nixon, particularly as (in costume as Cleopatra) she nervously attempted to soothe Luke even after he called in the sergeants.

Hassell and Hayes were a wonderful double-act as the neurotic Sir Maurice and the heavy-set Mr. Plenty. Their voices alone offered beautiful contrast, Hassell ascending to high-pitched shrieks while Hayes rumbled in a low bass. Their early fights were slap-heavy, with impressive wielding of gauntlets, but their rivalry quickly became shared pique at the demands of the young ladies. Sat in stools at opposite upstage corners, they aimed amazed gestures and shrugs at one another, supporting each other and guiding the audience’s appalled response. Interestingly though, as they agreed to leave the country together, Maurice drew himself up in a position of sober dignity and offered his new friend a genuine and warm salute, cutting through the silliness for a moment of real emotion before they took each other’s hands and began prancing offstage. This last action was performed in front of Nicholas Day’s Lord Lacy, the elderly and affected courtier who drew laughter in his every appearance thanks to his exaggerated posh voice and disregard for polite behaviour, as when he sat on an audience member’s laugh to listen to one scene. A special mention, also, to Simeon Moore’s cowering charlatan Stargaze, who put on a Welsh accent to impress his employers and lapsed into Cockney when left alone with the servants. He was the recipient of several well-deserved beatings, and his unintelligibly complex explanations of the stars were received with rapturous applause.

This is exactly the kind of work I love seeing the Swan offer: actor-centred, fast and funny, creative yet respectful to a little-known text. A wonderful night out AND a useful academic discovery. One hopes that it is seen by enough people to find its way back into the repertoire.

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