Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

In this year of another Monty Python reunion, it is right to remind ourselves that anarchic, absurdist comedy did not begin in the twentieth century. One needs only turn to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759), to prove that. There one finds digressions within digressions, with the whole structure of the novel turned inside out and lampooned. Going even further back to 1607, to this, Francis Beaumont's comic masterpiece, the performance itself is hijacked by the audience, subverted, and replaced by plays within a play, with many absurdist pranks throughout. Both Tristram Shandy and The Burning Pestle are thus thoroughly post-modern works - indeed, they render "post-modernity" an absurd anachronistic misnomer. As Eric Idle might have nasally pronounced: when it comes to comedy, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

Francis Beaumont was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. However, unlike other dramatists in the Southwark circle such as Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher, he did not write with the bard. He did, however, collaborate closely and successfully with Shakespeare's co-author, John Fletcher; and together they produced some of the most popular plays of the Jacobean period. 

Beaumont and Fletcher got together because they were united in failure. The Knight of the Burning Pestle went down very badly with the audience at Blackfriars, who thought it was all a bit silly. John Fletcher had a flop a year later with the Faithful Shepherdess, which also premiered at Blackfriars - obviously a tricky venue to play at the time. Thenceforth, however, Beaumont and Fletcher produced some fine, crowd-pleasing works, including The Woman Hater, Cupid's Revenge, The Maid's Tragedy  and The Scornful Lady. Fletcher and Beaumont were flatmates on Bankside, living near, and writing for, the Globe. It is wonderful to imagine Shakespeare, script in hand, popping around to see his two ambitious colleagues. Must have happened all the time. Unlike the Bard, however, these were posh boys; both university educated; Beaumont, the son of a Leicestershire knight; Fletcher the son of a bishop. Both died prematurely. Beaumont had a stroke in 1613  at the age of 29, and wrote no more plays after that. He died aged 32. Fletcher succumbed to the plague aged 45. Life really was tough back then, with death and disease all around. No wonder people flocked to the Globe, where, for a couple of hours, imagination could take flight from grim, pitiless circumstances. 

Anyway, to the play itself. From the start this was a whole heap of pre post modern, absurdist fun. Phil Daniels played Citizen, an upwardly mobile grocer who has had quite enough plays about royals and merchants, and interrupts the proceedings to demand a more representative storyline. In this commotion, what we see is the first portrayal of the common people demanding representation in the media - progressive stuff. Was this the spiritual founding of the BBC? 

Without exception, the cast were brilliant, and carried the chaotic lunacy with infectious energy and enthusiasm. Phil Daniels was, of course, perfect for the role of the troublesome Londoner, and orchestrated the play charismatically throughout. However, it was his wife, played by the multi-talented Pauline McLynn, who really stole the show with her emotionally charged commentaries and sudden revisions. The interplay of Daniels and McLynn was a joy to behold, and somehow the kept the whole anarchic show on the road. 

Another role that came close to stealing the show was that of Humphrey, played by Dickson Tyrrell - the pompous rival to Jasper (Alex Waldman) for the hand of the merchant's daughter, Luce - superbly played by Sarah MacRae. I had seen Tyrrell and Waldman just before in the Duchess of Malfi; and their switch from bloody drama to these comic roles was impressive, and hilarious. I will carry the vision of Humphrey dressed gloriously in his pink finest for a long time. 

Matthew Needham was excellent as the do or die Rafe, the commoner suddenly elevated to the starring role, with symbolism-charged pestle in hand. Hannah McPake had the difficult role of the unsympathetic Mistress Merrythought; and, together with Giles Cooper as Michael, the duo highlighted the centrality of money in these unforgiving times. The Dionysian Merrythought himself (Paul Rider), who cared nothing for money, sang his way throughout the play, to the delight of the audience. 

I had a seat right next to the musicians box, and it was interesting watching on at the often frenetic activity therein. Musical director, Nicholas Perry has done a amazing job with the music for this performance, and David Hatcher and Alex McCartney played with gusto, humour and skill. A special mention must be made of Emily Askew, whose playing of the violin and recorders added immeasurably to the raucous atmosphere. At the end of the play, the audience gave the ensemble a rousing roar of approval. Hats off to the Globe musicians!

I loved this play, and its performance. Given its absurdities and class references, it is very much a work at home in the 21st century. Unfortunately for the young Francis Beaumont, however, audiences weren't ready for this kind of progressive work in 1608. That said, for Beaumont, this unjustified flop lead onto the fruitful collaborations with John Fletcher, and much fame and applause before his untimely demise. 

This is the second play I have seen at the Sam Wanamaker's theatre, and both have been vivid and highly impressive. While the Globe itself produces superb popular renditions of Shakespeare, next door in the Bear Pit, it is wonderful that the Bard's contemporaries are now being heard as well - just as it was when Will, Francis and John would pop down the road to applaud each other's performances. 

The next plays I am going to are . . . 
Pericles, by William Shakespeare and George Wilkins, The Hall of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford upon Avon, 22nd February. 
A Winter's Tale, at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, London, 27th Feb. 
The Massacre at Paris by Christopher Marlowe, Rose Theatre, London, 11th March. 

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