June 22, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

The Dutch Courtesan (DTFTV) @ The Scenic Stage Theatre, University of York

The big renaissance drama production at the University of York has become something of a calendar event, as picked up on by Pascale Aebischer in her new book, Screening Early Modern Drama, which points out that Michael Cordner’s rotating company of students is one of the very few providing full filmed stage productions of non-Shakespearean early modern plays. Following on from A Mad World, My Masters (preserved in full on the accompanying website, to which I contributed), Cordner returned to the repertory of the early boys’ companies for a witty, intelligent take on John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan.

The play’s double plot poses challenges for the company attempting to strike a balance between the audience-pleasing tricks of the Cocledemoy/Mulligrub conflict and the more consequential events of the Freevill/Malheureux/Franceschina story. The production, however, brilliantly yoked together the two plots in a mirrored blocking of the dual climaxes that placed the tricksters Cocledemoy and Freevill central to the resolutions, the one effecting forgiveness and merriment, the other recrimination and dissatisfaction. In this reading, The Dutch Courtesan became a study of the cruel comedy of punishment and the extents to which it can be taken.

In the more obviously comic plot, Luke de Belder and Dan Cornwell shone as Cocledemoy and his victim, Mulligrub. Cocledemoy was larger than life, existing largely outwith the fictional world of the play as he switched between multiple disguises, sexually harassed the young barber’s apprentice, threw himself onto the stage in laughter and giggled constantly to the audience. A joyful force who took delight in playing tricks and scatological humour, the farce of the tricks was compounded by Cornwell’s barely repressed stamping rage. Played broadly, the comedy was suffused with lovely points: the greedy Mulligrub initially serving only himself with the salmon, before grudgingly giving a small slice to his wife; Mulligrub having his whole face covered in shaving foam and only noticing the coxcomb left on his head as he banged it in frustration against the floor; Cocledemoy humming the opening bars of Sweeney Todd while taking a razor to Mulligrub’s face; Mulligrub snarling and snapping at the Watch as he was placed in stocks. Mulligrub’s increasingly animalistic rage was particularly entertaining when placed in contrast with the rather diffident Watch, who sat at the side of the stage texting rather than looking out for malefactors.

Cocledemoy’s interventions in these scenes (as officious French butler, Northern barber and Welsh clergyman, among other disguises) positioned him as Lord of Misrule, but always with an edge to his anarchic tricks. His return for the salmon was triggered by nothing other than appetite, and his proposed liaison with Mrs Mulligrub (a game Lucy Theobald) left a note of potential future discord over the final resolution as she sighed for continuing to be stuck with her husband. Yet while there was potential for this to become a one-sided persecution, the enthusiasm of de Belder’s performance rather swept through the problems, aiming to make an audience complicit (encouraged, of course, by Mulligrub’s own greed and iracsibility).

Cocledemoy was also, however, Prologue and Epilogue to the play, introducing the wits of the main plot and bringing them back together at the play’s close. Containing the play within a carnival spirit might have lightened the action, but Cordner’s framing served to link the plots more explicitly. The slapstick victimisation of Mulligrub was translated in spirit to Freevill’s (Nick Armfield’s) manipulation of his friends and lovers in the main plot, yet the liberty accorded the character here became a damaging power game with destructive rather than reconciliatory conclusions. In some respects, this Cocledemoy came across as a parodic extension of the privileged Freevill, taking a sense of entitlement to its extremes.

Performed in modern dress, Freevill and his crew were rugby boys, rich kids in jackets with a smugness as they passed fine jewels and casual insults between one another. Stevie Jeram’s Malheureux was the group’s conscientious objector, as awkward as Freevill was easy in the company of the opposite sex (for the first time, the play made me think of She Stoops to Conquer). Rory Hern’s Tysefew was more arrogant but deferred to Freevill, while the rather brilliant Harry Whittaker stole all of his scenes as Caqueteur, the socially inept butt of the group’s jokes. Always laughing later and louder than everybody else, stumbling over his words when challenged, offering stage whispers while unaware that the subject of his comments was standing directly behind him, Whittaker turned Caqueteur’s every line into a faux pas, yet his belligerent confidence rendered his stumbling efforts adorable.

The catalyst for the friction between Freevill and Malheureux was, of course, the titular Franceschina (Anna Thirkettle), who was kept human rather than monstrous, but easily angered. While Thirkettle made clear Franceschina’s agenda clear, the emphasis was less on her scheming than on her emotional reaction to being thrown aside by Freevill (an act that might have been made more of, given the grossness of the dismissal to modern sensibilities). The courtesan moved between the men, playing off Malheureux’s clear infatuation but never wielding control over the far more casual Freevill. The character’s agency was thus always, to some extent, compromised, as was clear from the shifting relationship between her and Katie Macintyre’s Mary Faugh, which saw the latter as both taskmaster and servant to her star employee.

The shifting locations of the play were marked by the moving of four large wrapped towers, creating subtly different backdrop arrangements for characters to exit through or hide within, though the complexity of the scene changes was not quite worth the minor differences in arrangement. Far more effective were Roberto del Pino’s lighting shifts that distinguished effectively between the two plots and the various locations. Most of the action took place centrally on the thrust stage, keeping the characters constantly moving. The first half opened with a new wedding song joining Freevill and Lauren Moakes’s Beatrice, though this was immediately interrupted by a brief staged tussle between Malheueux and Freevill that introduced the duel charade leading to Malheureux’s ultimate disgrace. Social standing became essential to the play’s second half, perhaps best illustrated in Eliza Shea’s confident sophisticate Crispinella, poised and wearing sunglasses, who commented acerbically on the activities of the rest, rebuffed her would-be suitors and cared for her sister in her distress.

The distress increasingly took over. As Freevill adopted a green suit and took to walking around the edges of the stage, watching those who loved him respond to his ‘death’, the production stressed the severity of the impact. Malheureux, despite his flaws, came across as abandoned, and even while Franceschina gloated there was little sense of triumph. As Freevill revealed himself to Beatrice, she paused, mouth open and face blank, before fainting away. Although he showed tenderness, the extent to which events were allowed to run their course seemed increasingly cruel as a shirtless Malheureux had his head placed in a noose and the disguised Cocledemoy guided him through his last rites. Freevill’s revelation of himself came simply too late. Malheureux stood opposite him, quietly judging his friend. Beatrice walked out. And Franceschina, condemned to whipping, shrugged off the constables and marched out with her head held high. Freevill was left alone to drift off the stage, leaving Cocledemoy to resume his own plot, culminating with Mulligrub weeping for joy as he knelt embracing the ‘priest’.

The balance of hysterical comedy and sober reflection served the play well, pointing up the problems of the machinations needed to drive the multiple tricks while also displacing the agency of those playing the tricks. Everyone was, to some extent, at fault; yet victory could only be achieved by being more deceitful than everybody else. Whether this was joyful or judgemental depended on circumstance, but what became clear is that those with the best overviews were also those who were ultimately most disengaged from the effect of their actions on their ‘victims’. A fine revival, then, and one that found much more than puritan satire in a too-neglected play.

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