A woman and a man wave while another man looks on in the background.

June 9, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Cheek by Jowl) @ The Barbican Theatre

The Knight of the Burning Pestle opened exactly as one might imagine a Cheek by Jowl production to open. To eerie music, a group of stone-faced actors emerged from behind a central white block on a bare stage, each bringing a chair with them. The chairs were arranged in deliberately unpatterned positions around the stage, the actors facing in different directions, as the face of the director of The London Merchant (Kirill Sbitnev) appeared projected onto the screen to give a serious prologue to the play; the actors began moving around the stage with stylised, repetitive movements foregrounding key components of their characters. The London Merchant itself began, with projected scene captions on the screen, and severe, unsmiling performances of a play being read as an exploration of sexual psychology.

The challenge with The Knight of the Burning Pestle is how to balance the play’s inherent structural joke of a disrupted play. What Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod achieved, which was key to the success of this spectacular production, was the commitment to a full realisation of The London Merchant, in a production that bravely and hilariously parodied their own practice, as well as that of their European contemporaries. Sbitnev has previously worked as Cheek by Jowl’s Assistant Director on its Russian-language Shakespeare productions, and here became the embodiment of the concept-driven European auteur, an intense and intensely awkward man insistent on preserving the quality of his art, an art defined by its interrogation of the human condition. The cast of The London Merchant, similarly, were entirely devoted to their art and their belief in the concept. A bit like the company’s previous Ubu Roi, there was a lot of fun to be had in puncturing the pretensions of the bourgeois classes.

The London Merchant, as directed by Sbitnev’s ‘Tim’, had much of its comedy stripped out in favour of a traumatic reading of competing masculinities and entitlements. Sergei Miller’s Venturewell was an uncompromising patriarch, taking his prospective son-in-law Humphrey (a twitchy Andrei Kuzichev) out shooting birds while agreeing Humphrey’s strategy for wooing Luce. Luce (Anna Vardevanian) was an immaculately dressed princess, who insisted on being accompanied by her luggage when asking Humphrey to perform an ‘abduction’ of her. Framed against the wintry backdrop of a Russian forest, her real lover Jasper (Kirill Chernyshenko) – rejected in the opening scene by Venturewell for his background – stole her away from Humphrey, but then enacted his own possessive threats against her (revealed as a test of her fidelity that pointed to his own entitlement) in a scene that became genuinely threatening as he mimicked the advances on her that Humphrey had previously made.

In playing up the serious elements of the main plotline, Tim’s production looked for thematic connection with the Merrythoughts. This subplot began in a more comic vein, with Alexei Rakhmanov thrashing out his own brand of classic rock and drinking heavily while Anna Karmakova’s Mrs Merrythought hoovered diligently, the two unplugging each other’s instruments in an ongoing battle of wills. Mrs Merrythought stormed out with her son Michael (Danila Kazakov), and the production played up the icy world which she found herself wandering, looking for pathos as she later returned, asking to be let in, only to be turned away for refusing to sing. Karmakova, a Cheek by Jowl newcomer, was a revelation in the role, capturing both the determination of the woman to leave her alcoholic husband and the severity of the circumstances that forced her to come back on his own terms.

The short and efficient scenes set up The London Merchant as a series of steps in a psychologically complex set of power games. The machinations over Jasper’s posing as a corpse were moved through quickly (allowing for some humour as Luce cried over his body, then started exploring to see what was in his pants, prompting him to suddenly reveal he was alive), and Jasper’s ‘haunting’ of Venturewell saw him speaking into a video camera, his spectral face overpowering on the screen (in another brilliant parody of Cheek by Jowl’s own recent work). The final scene of The London Merchant brought together an unhappy set of conclusions. Having been let back into the home, Mrs Merrythought left again under a cloud, only this time Michael refused to leave with her; it was left to Mrs Merrythought finally to strike out by herself. The discomfort of her departure was moved past as Jasper started dancing with Luce, only for Humphrey to enter with the hunting rifle he had earlier borrowed from Venturewell, turning to shoot his love rivals as the production ended on freeze frame, bathed in red light. For ‘Tim’, The London Merchant was ultimately an indictment of a toxic masculinity that sought to contain or eradicate female agency, where the disenfranchised man resorted to violence, and the dominant man was able to have everything on his own terms. End scene.

Where The London Merchant often disappears in the melee of chaos, then, Donnellan and Ormerod’s full realisation of the ‘real’ play served to set up important thematic concerns which established some potent stakes for The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and which led to a production which found surprising emotional and empathic purchase. This was a revolutionary Knight of the Burning Pestle, rejecting any sense that the play is mere farce and instead finding intricate links that made the issues of The London Merchant more, not less, profound. Which didn’t, of course, mean that the play wasn’t hysterical from start to finish.

The chaos began just after Venturewell and Jasper began their first scene, as a suited man (Alexander Feklistov) hauled himself onto the stage from the Barbican auditorium and politely but insistently interrupted the actors, not stepping onto the acting area but leaning forward and demanding they pay attention. He told them that he had no idea what was going on and positioned himself as spokesman on behalf of all of us – where were the glorious costumes, the set, the joy of theatre? Joined by his wife (the superlative Agrippina Steklova), the two joked together, immediately winsome in their self-deprecating honesty about their own position (the Grocer’s Wife was momentarily overwhelmed by how many people were looking at her), but also utterly unmoved as stage managers started emerging and the frozen company looked at the audience in silent desperation. With Rafe (Nazar Safonov) summoned onto the stage to play a Knight for the Wife’s amusement (and immediately bundled off by stagehands), the Grocers picked up two of the onstage chairs and sat themselves down to watch the rest of it. And the play resumed, with Sbitnev (whose chair was one of those taken) awkwardly crouching in order not to disrupt his planned blocking.

The mere presence of the Grocers was enough to start undermining everything that Sbitnev’s production was trying to achieve; and brilliantly, it acted as a playful jab at the constraints of auteur-led theatre. The ‘actors’ of The London Merchant knew their blocking perfectly and none were natural improvisers, so much of the humour came from the way they dealt with the interruptions. ‘Venturewell’ was perhaps the most serious of the actors, and would barrel on relentlessly with his lines, or stay frozen in his position with hand outstretched for several minutes, in an attempt to completely ignore the Grocers. ‘Luce’ was a diva and absolutely furious at the Grocers upstaging her; one of the best moments of intervention was the Wife mimicking Luce’s affected high-pitched tones, and Luce in at least one moment had to be restrained from attacking the Wife. ‘Merrythought’ was similarly exasperated, often holding his head in his hands in despair as the Wife offered her opinions; and baby of the company ‘Michael’ just had no idea what was going on.

The interruptions of the Grocers were mild for much of the production, but the relative restraint was what made them work. Little interjections such as the Wife’s laughter at the gunshots during Venturewell and Humphrey’s plotting scene served to point out what The London Merchant was trying to achieve in its so-serious moments by undermining that intended effect. As the production went on, the interventions became larger. Some were for predominantly comic effect – the Wife’s infatuation with ‘Humphrey’ was because she knew him for his role as a doctor elsewhere, and as a huge fan she continually interrupted, trying to get selfies and an autograph, and intervening on his behalf; and later in the production she took a long phone call with a friend where she revealed that they were only there because The Lion King was sold out, that they hadn’t found Meghan, and that she didn’t know how to get tickets for this Brexit that everyone was talking about.

But while these interjections worked for their comic value, there was also a developing sense of the production’s exploration of these spectators’ own values. The Grocer’s infatuation with ‘Luce’ was leery, and much to the Wife’s displeasure; The London Merchant had Luce pee on stage after her flight with Jasper, and then take off her knickers in anticipation of sex; the Grocer sniggered, while the Wife disapprovingly bent her head to see if ‘Luce’ was exposing herself. While the Grocer leered after Luce, the Wife developed a connection to Mrs Merrythought that began exploring her empathy.  She couldn’t sit by while Mrs Merrythought comforted her starving son in the forest, and eventually got up on stage and offered Mrs Merrythought and Michael the sandwiches from her handbag. ‘Mrs Merrythought’ and ‘Michael’ were two of the worst improvisers in the troupe, but this moment of connection began a relationship that became important during the pivotal scene.

At Mrs Merrythought’s first return to her house, she pleaded to be let back in, and Merrythought refused. At this point, the Wife could no longer contain herself, and intervened to tell Mrs Merrythought to stand up for herself; the aggrieved Grocer, however, marched into Merrythought’s house and picked up Merrythought’s guitar and started playing it in support of Merrythought. The Wife tried to rile the audience up on the side of Mrs Merrythought, and the scene collapsed into a long argument where the Grocers’ accumulated baggage of thirty years of marriage came to the surface. The Wife looked down on the Grocer’s class background and hated his father’s treatment of the women in his life; the Grocer accused the Wife of being needy, and finally ended the argument by calling her a fat cow. The London Merchant company gathered silently onstage to bear witness to the argument, and the Wife silently and sadly walked back over to the chairs they had been sitting on and dragged her own across to the other side of the stage, where she sat crying quietly. Faced with this horrific scene, Sbitnev’s director asked ‘Mrs Merrythought’ to sing a song, and the Grocer quietly comforted his Wife as the actor sung a beautiful song. Eventually the Grocer flung a jacket over his and his Wife’s head, snogging her, and when they emerged, breathless and smiling, they came to an accord, the argument not forgotten but forgiven. In a beautiful grace note, the Grocer ran offstage to get champagne, Feklistov performing a cartwheel on the way to enormous applause. But what was beautiful about this sequence was the company – so far thwarted and dictated to by the interlopers – stepping up to offer their empathic support at a moment of crisis, and the ways in which the old married couple spoke honesty and forgave, their deep connection helping them get past the moment of crisis.

However, having resolved their own issues, the Grocers now allowed their own entitlement to show more. The Wife’s phone conversation happened at this point, completely talking about the on-stage scene. The Grocer returned with champagne, being pursued by the Barbican’s irate stage manager (‘No speak English’, announced the Wife, grandly). And finally, with all pretences at modesty or empathy removed, the Wife decided to start demanding the production she wanted. In a grand oration, she told the director exactly what she wanted from the court of Krakow, and the start of the Venturwell haunting scene was delayed for about twenty minutes while the play finally turned to the Wife’s impassioned creation of the Knight’s story.

The Knight scenes were the biggest casualties of the extended cuts, grouped into two main sections. The first set of scenes, involving the Knight and Tim’s (improvised desperately by Sbitnev) intervention into the forest scenes, showed the apprentice roundly defeated by the actors. Cruelly, ‘Jasper’ whispered something in Rafe’s ear that caused him to go running back to the Wife; and then he rapped Rafe rudely on the head, knocking him out and causing the Wife to threaten to sue the theatre. Rafe, for his own part, angrily berated the Wife for continually embarrassing him. But Rafe’s big scene was as the centrepiece of the Wife’s delirious creation in the play’s second half. The Grocer grabbed the onstage camera (set up for Jasper to perform the Ghost into) and ran off backstage, and on the screen a live feed captured the Grocer running around backstage as the cast desperately tried to pull together the Wife’s demands for Krakow. In the aftermath of his reconciliation with his Wife, the Grocer made no bones about using his camera to pursue Luce (‘I just want to tell you how much I enjoy your performance’, he shouted, as her dresser tried to push him away) and comment on the smallness of the actors’ arrangements. But then, gloriously, Krakow spilled out onto the stage – a decadent display of neon wigs, furs, horned beasts and revealing dresses. Banners unfurled from the ceiling, and Rafe was brought in on an enormous horse that he could barely dismount from.

Finally, the cast of The London Merchant threw themselves into improvisation with wild abandon, ‘Luce’s’ performance as the Princess offering a sexually voracious temptation to Rafe’s Knight, that the young man valiantly refused. However, the Wife then intervened, her bloodlust taking over as she demanded that these decadent courtiers all be killed, and Rafe went on a bloody rampage full of histrionic deaths. As a conclusion she then demanded that Rafe himself die, and Safonov (accompanied by red lights and stage smoke) gave a spectacularly inventive performance of the climactic speeches of Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth and others, slicing his wrists with his axe and repeatedly dying, defying Sbitnev’s attempts to get him off the stage. Finally sated, the Wife agreed to let the London Merchant finally approach its own conclusion.

Throughout this sequence, the Grocers’ reminders to the actors that they were the ones paying, and as such the actors should do what they said, cast an ugly pall over the words. From the empathic connections developed earlier in the production, the resolution of the Grocers’ own issues had led them to focus entirely on one another again, and their own devolution to the desire for pure spectacle and violence revealed the crassness of those demands, however spectacularly funny the results. In this the production showed its own two-sidedness; while the restrictive concept theatre was failing to speak to its onstage audience and took itself too seriously, the unrestrained indulgence of the audience’s demands led to something all-consuming in its rage, a two-minute-hate of spectacle that (only) temporarily slaked the thirst of its spectators. ‘Will you now sit quietly and listen?’ asked the director; ‘of course’ replied the Wife, she herself not realising how temporary her own satisfaction was.

The bleak ending of The London Merchant, ending in blackout, was obviously not to the taste of the Grocer and Wife; and so, in the final set of interruptions, they demanded that the lights be raised again. Having completely changed her tune following her own reconciliation with her husband, now the Wife summoned Mrs Merrythought back onstage and told her that she had to give her husband more time. This, the Grocers told the cast, was no way to end a play, and the Grocers finally became the auteurs themselves. Recalling the earlier repetitive motions of the cast with which the play had begun, the Wife instead taught each cast member a different dance move (screw the lightbulb, cut the air), and asked for music; her production ended in a brilliantly choreographed line routine, with high kicks and the works, and joy on the actors’ faces – ‘isn’t that better’? And with that, the Grocers bustled off, promising to bring their friends the next night.

In a final awkwardness, the Barbican audience applauded the Grocers as they left, and then were confronted with the cast of The London Merchant standing frozen in place on stage. After a while, the audience applauded them too, then laughed as the applause ended and the actors continued to stand in awkward silence. And then finally, belatedly, the lights slowly faded. The false endings were a lovely final comic touch, but also ultimately returned the London Merchant actors to their pre-blocked, conceptual ending, the actors still locked in their pre-agreed patterns. The ambivalence of the ending was brilliant, and a meta-commentary in some respects on the nature of theatre itself: the audience members experiencing a transformative event that enabled them to work through things and leave the theatre as different people, but the actors themselves condemned to pre-rehearsed routines and nightly repetition. And the development but also failure of empathy between the Grocers and the company perhaps pointed to the inability of theatre to control response or to fully predict its own effects.

As an exploration of the theatrical process, then, The Knight of the Burning Pestle served as a hilarious, intelligent and provocative reflection on Cheek by Jowl’s own work. The callbacks to the company’s previous productions were legion: Humphrey’s final sudden revenge was a reminder of Malvolio’s in the Russian ensemble’s Twelfth Night; the aggressive wooing of Luce by Humphrey echoed the same actors’ previous roles as Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure; the Grocer’s comforting of his hurt Wife through song was reminiscent of the same actor’s performance as Sir Toby in Twelfth Night, comforting Maria after striking her with a song. Beaumont’s prescient metatheatre became the perfect vehicle for Cheek by Jowl’s own metatheatrical exploration of its own practice, culminating in a work that managed to combine the laughter of satire with a still profound consideration of how humans (dis)engage with one another.

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