February 20, 2013, by Peter Kirwan
The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Read not Dead) @ Sackler Studios, Shakespeare’s Globe
‘Post-modern before the term was even invented’. So runs the blurb on Shakespeare’s Globe’s ‘Read not Dead‘ webpage, and it’s a fitting description of Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. A failure when first performed, and an often difficult play in modern revival, the Read not Dead team here excelled themselves with an hysterically funny, theatrically literate and remarkably sophisticated production, given that the actors had only assembled a few hours earlier.
‘Read not Dead’ is the series of staged readings at the Globe that is attempting, over a period of many years, to put the entire early modern dramatic canon on its feet, and was the perfect vehicle for Beaumont’s play. The play is (in)famous for its scripted interruptions, as a Citizen, his Wife and their apprentice, Rafe, take issue with the play that the boy company are presenting to them, and get on stage to dictate their own story. While a more polished production can struggle to capture the spontaneity and chaos of the conflicting plots and interpolations, the rough-and-ready atmosphere of Read not Dead – crucially, a venue in which experiments can fail, as does the play that battles valiantly against the Citizen’s demands – perfectly suited a play which is, ultimately, a play about putting on plays, just as the interpolated narrative (borrowed from Don Quixote) is a romance satirising romances.
Overseeing events was the remarkable Martin Hodgson as the Prologue. In waistcoat and scarf, and with a permanently furrowed brow, the Prologue here took on the role of the ‘Co-ordinator’ of a Read not Dead performance. The real co-ordinator, Frances Marshall, allowed Hodgson to become her proxy, running around stage clearing up discarded props, cuing actors, and engaging in increasingly outraged arguments with the citizens intent on disrupting his masterpiece. Hodgson’s perpetual durance was manifest in his reluctance to be beckoned by the Citizen, and more explicit as he slowly banged his file against his head while Rafe took the stage.
His nemeses, played to aggravating perfection by Matt Adis and Rebecca Todd, emerged from the audience. The class-conscious characters, reminiscent of Boycie and Marlene from Only Fools and Horses, were dressed up in suit and glittery dress, and proceeded to remove other audience members from seats on stage and assume a position from which they watched, heckled, munched their way through chocolates and sandwiches (to the aggravation of the actors) and call for changes. The tension between the Wife and the Prologue in particular was finely drawn, particularly in one sequence as the Wife sent a bag of chocolates rustling loudly down the rows of the audience. In high dudgeon, the Prologue came and removed the bag, prompting a stand-off as the Wife took to her feet and quietly told him to give them back. The audience delightedly persisted in rustling the bag as loudly as possible for the remainder of the scene.
The lively participation was key to a performance that depended hugely on goodwill and the disjunct between ‘unacceptable’ behaviour and entertainment. By casting the Prologue as a director, the conflict between the plays’ two distinct plots was brought into sharp distinction, not least when, lacking a spare female actor, the Prologue was himself required to don drag, ordering the rest of the actors to wait as ‘If we’re doing this, we’re doing it properly’. The actors of the main romance plot, too, became involved from the sidelines, heckling and contributing or glaring at the noisy citizens. The audience were thus drawn into the same behaviours, sharing in the carnival spirit and being willingly recruited as Rafe’s paramour, soldiers and polite sandwich-sharers.
The subplot, inevitably, overpowered the main action, to glorious affect. Rafe (Tom Frankland) was recruited from the audience with a backpack and skateboard, and re-emerged as The Knight of the Burning Pestle, with bulging phallus displayed on his sword; a hobby horse attached to the skateboard and a pan for a helmet. Two Globe ‘stewards’, wearing the usual tabards, were recruited to be his Squire and his Dwarf (the latter with eye-rolling distaste that only became funnier), and the three indulged in grand gestures in mockery of chivalry that perfectly captured the tone of Beaumont’s play and Cervantes’ source novel. As the performance went on, and successfully, Frankland grew increasingly confident in flagging up the tenuousness of a play that had been through so little rehearsal, adding the context of production to the play’s own material. Thus, his epic poem in behalf of London was delivered at a galloping pace, with the false rhymes contorted to match, and whenever flagging he added that they hadn’t had time to rehearse it, ending in rapturous applause. Similarly, his stand-alone dying scene saw him stagger in with false arrow through head and milk the lines even more than Bottom might have done, staggering around and screaming while cuing the live musician to add ever more stirring chords to his final moments.
Elsewhere, his duel with John Sandeman’s Barber saw the two eventually ‘giving up’ and the Barber simply lying down to die, fascinatingly blurring the boundaries between the ‘performance’ of the Barber, the ‘performance’ of the ‘actor’ who had been recruited to play the Barber at the Citizens’ request, and the RnD actor playing the actor playing the Barber. It would be too easy, perhaps, to look for the anomalies and slippages between these different layers of performance, but this would rather defeat the point. In this company’s hands, occasion and text worked together to create a joyous celebration of performativity that avoided logical rigour in favour of theatrical effect. Thus, Benjamin Whitrow’s doddering Merrythought could be at once a frustratingly vacant character and a dithering actor forgetting his cues. The whole was held together by our Prologue, at once struggling to hold the play together but also enabling his actors to perform the Citizens’ play, to their smug satisfaction.
In the main plot, the beleaguered ‘actors’ soldiered on. Happily, the more straight story was not turned into a distraction from the more obviously hysterical antics of the intruding play, although much comedy came from these actors reacting (most notably, disdain at the Wife’s snores during the romantic scenes, and John Gregor’s extraordinary scream to be heard as Venturewell). For a Read not Dead, the physicality and sophistication of the set were surprisingly advanced, and care had been taken to provide, for example, a stretcher to act as coffin for the main smuggling device (in which Jasper rescues Lucy) and the branches that created a ‘woodland’ scene, created by a poor ‘stagehand’ draping a blanket over her head and holding up foliage.
James Maclaren’s Jasper was by turns comic-heroic and dastardly, offering what felt like a genuine threat as he moved against Lucy in a fit of anger, but also dashing in his handling of the final set of devices. Claire Chate’s Lucy played the virtuous heroine to great effect, and the two lovers were repeatedly undercut by the comic action happening around them. Echoes of Cymbeline could be seen in Alex Harcourt-Smith’s Humphrey, the bespectacled and bookish preferred suitor, who skulked around the main plot and provided the main threat, though it was Gregor’s towering father who made the most of his presence here. This joyless, cantankerous tyrant got his comeuppance when forced to sing to gain entrance to Merrythought’s house, a song cut off after a single note by the kindly old man.
The Merrythoughts, as Beaumont appears to have intended, functioned oddly within the plot, secondary devices to a story that becomes increasingly secondary. Whitrow was quite marvellous, giggling to himself in the wings and seemingly oblivious to everything else until the rather touching moment as Jasper’s coffin was brought in, at which his smile faded and a plaintive ‘Oh’ emerged. The battle against him to hear his wife and overgrown son (Eileen Nicholas and Robert Heard) culminated in an interestingly staged finale as Merrythought finally took centrestage and ushered characters one by one onto the stage to be reunited. It’s fascinating to imagine that a play that so closely echoes Cymbeline, Double Falsehood and The Two Noble Kinsmen just went one stage too far in deconstructing a genre that is already self-referential in its nostalgic romance.
At almost three and a half hours, this was an epic, yet never felt it. Beaumont’s play is constructed of set pieces (the ‘victims’ escaping from the Barber; the coffin sequence, allowing Chate to unleash a chilling scream as Jasper was finally revealed; the songs; Rafe’s every appearance), but that alone can’t explain this production’s success. This was Read not Dead at the absolute top of its game: more complex and involved than the vast majority of fully realised productions I’ve seen lately, and hysterically funny to boot. By drawing on the community engendered by the format to expose and capitalise on the very self-consciousness that the play itself foregrounds, Frances Marshall offered what may be the finest deconstruction yet of Read not Dead itself, as well as a beautiful and literate reclamation of a masterpiece of the early modern stage.