March 23, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Last year, one of my most read blogs was my review of the Globe’s rehearsed reading of Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle as part of the Read not Dead series. That review did the rounds and even got quoted in the Globe’s annual review. What made that performance one of the finest and most enjoyable bits of theatre I’ve ever seen was not the play itself – as much as I find it the single most intelligent early modern play – but the embracement of a ramshackle improvisation. As audience members interrupted and the cast attempted to adlib complex stories, the play came alive as a collaborative collage of elements communally created by its audience.

A professional production has a harder job, but I hope that my review had even a little to do with the Globe committing to the challenge of making it the second production in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. If The Duchess of Malfi showcased the lighting possibilities of the space, Burning Pestle is about the unique relationship enabled between a company on an intimate stage and a seated, enthusiastic and very visible audience. The shutters were kept open for almost the entire play, ensuring that the auditorium itself remained as much a part of the production as the stage. Unusually, no pretence was made at Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn’s Citizens being contemporary: they entered in full Jacobean costume as the play began, chatting noisily to their neighbours in the auditorium. Yet wisely, this production wasn’t about making the play contemporary in the sense of modernisation, but in the sense of performing the experience of sharing in a Sam Wanamaker production.

From the early rustling of the Wife’s bag of sweets (eventually removed in high dudgeon by John Dougall’s Venturewell) to the collective decision of the audience not to boo the Citizen’s ideas when the Boy (Samuel Hargreaves) requested, the production quickly established a relationship that might boringly be described as communally productive, but which was fundamentally and more importantly hysterical. Audience members were recruited by both the citizens and the ‘actors’ in their own behalf, the contest much more amusing than the play itself. Beautifully, the slippage between ‘actors’ and their characters was allowed to remain illogical and inconsistent – thus Mrs Merrythought could be at once furious as actor that her passions were being talked over, and grateful as character for the solidarity shown her in her distress by the Wife.

In performance, what becomes apparent is the importance of the ongoing performance of Citizen and Wife, here remaining in the auditorium rather than sitting on stage. The visibility afforded them by the shape of the theatre meant that their reactions remained part of the performance throughout, causing hilarity and continual distraction beyond the scripted moments. Daniels made for a gruff and occasionally threatening Citizen, his outrage at the ‘impropriety’ of a grocer’s apprentice wooing royalty threatening to turn into a beating of the hapless Boy (who did sterling work throughout, dancing through the interludes and announcing acts while attempting to mediate with his fellow actors). The banter between Citizen and Wife was fast and loving, and occasionally moving as the Citizen embraced and comforted the Wife following a moment of fear, and especially when her voice broke slightly and the theatre fell into deathly silence as she described the loss of her son…. until her casual note that Rafe had offered to get her a new one brought the house down again.

If there was one slight disappointment about this plot, it was the production yielding to the temptation to make the Rafe plot grander than its alleged improvised nature warrants (something the Read not Dead production necessarily avoided). The Tapster and Barber scenes were key examples of this, the latter battle featuring Brendan O’Hea on stilts and his face smeared in red paint while clamping knived gloves, while Tim descended from the ceiling in harness to launch an overhead attack. While this scene in particular was hysterical and a perfect example of the carnivalesque physical farce at which the production excelled, as well as a welcome shift in tone, the clear preparedness of the company for this moment overlooked the potential for comedy in the actors ‘improvising’ on the spot.

This was more than compensated for in the uproarious performances of Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan as Tim and George. Herdman was the production’s chameleon, initially saddled up with stacks of luggage but later tasked with taking on several of the chivalric plot’s more notable moments, which he handled in deadpan fashion, especially when left swinging from his harness at the end of Act 3, and in his game depiction of the Moldovian princess (fullly bearded), screaming from the musicians’ gallery as he heard Rafe appealing to Susan. Nolan, meanwhile, energised the company during the song and dance numbers and took charge of establishing the over the top chivalric tone of the fantasy, throwing his arms wide as he declared Rafe’s approach or revealing the burning pestle in a glowing box. When the box failed to open, it was George who led the entertaining banter among the actors as they forced Barbaroso to kiss the box instead of the pestle.

Matthew Needham’s Rafe stood among the chaos, often oblivious to his effects (such as brandishing his sword high over his head, not noticing that the suspended Tim was having to twist to avoid being impaled) and switching between his different roles at his mistress’s command. Interestingly, he was often the most passive character, subjected to beatings up by Jasper and commands from his employers. His shining moment came in his tribute to the city, played as a rare moment of quiet as he appealed to the history and traditions of London. His death scene too, while necessarily hilarious as he staggered about the stage with arrow through his head, also served as a moment of consolidation as he shook hands with the ‘actors’ who had finally warmed to his presence. Rafe became the production’s heart, the figure at the centre of the collaborative creation; yet when he took his final bow and then returned to sit with his master and mistress, I was struck by how completely the character had disappeared into the roles he presents – of everyone on the stage, he remained the most significant enigma.

Within The London Merchant, which Hargreaves’s hardworking Boy valiantly attempted to keep on track, there was lots of fun to be had. Alex Waldmann played Jasper as an arrogant hero, an extravagant gesture fitted to every word and a diva-like impatience for interruptions. His flamboyant entrances and flourishes were matched by the sexually ravenous Luce of Sarah MacRae, who couldn’t keep her hands off her beau. The two played their plot as high melodrama, to a point where it was possible to share in the Wife’s dislike for their (deliberate) smugness. Dickon Tyrrell’s Humphrey was dressed in pink and stressed the pedestrian rhymes of his dialogue, but also allowed the Wife’s remarks to get the better of his modesty.

The always dependable Dougall turned Venturewell into a scheming villain, rendered quaking and penitent following the appearance of Waldmann’s ‘Ghost’ (who danced in glee behind Venturewell’s back when he wasn’t looking), and was contrasted with the Falstaffian Merrythought of Paul Rider. While Rider was very difficult to hear from my gallery seat over the live music, he took on a difficult part with wit and, when appropriate, sensitivity. His house guests wore masks that depicted his flowing red beard, and as the revellers became increasingly impoverished they ended up in their long johns, looking for all the world like singing babies. Yet even Merrythought struggled to get a positive note into his songs as Jasper’s death was announced, just as Luce’s elegy for her dead love struck a genuine note of sadness before the hilarity of his casual and abrupt emergence from the coffin.

The ensemble was rounded out by Hannah McPake’s dramatic Mistress Merrythought and Giles Cooper’s simpering Michael, dressed identically to his mother and fawned over by her. In some respects, this became the most interesting plot as the one that slipped most between the anxiety of actors attempting to get on with the play, the interactions with Rafe and the intrusion of the Citizens. As the two ran from situation to situation, only to find themselves forced to sing, fleeing from assailants or simply ejected from the stage by a call for Rafe, they became the repeat victims of a play whose competing energies left no space for them, and emblematic of the chaotic spirit of the play.

There were far too many grace notes and flashes of brilliance to do justice to in a single review, but one can only hope that the outrageous success of this production will allay any doubts that the play’s rejection by its original audience is due to flaws in the play. The Knight of the Burning Pestle succeeded apparently effortlessly in generating the most energetic audience I’ve seen in a theatre in years, creating communities of support around actors/characters and – most importantly – a communal investment in producing whatever random scene was next ordered. It proved that the Wanamaker is just as well fitted for comedy as for the shadows of Jacobean tragedy and will, I hope, generate enthusiasm for continuing to explore the lesser known areas of the repertory.

Posted in Theatre review