The long night of The Knight…

21st February 2014

To the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for the first public performance of Francis Beaumont’s 1607 The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Which, let it be said, is very funny, very finely played (including by Pauline McLynn and Phil Daniels, above) – and very long. Last night’s show came down after 3 hours and 20 minutes at 10.50pm. Some relief – for which, much thanks – was provided by short interludes at the end of Acts I, II and IV, with an additional 15-minute ‘privy break’ as a more conventional interval.

The 4-minute or so interludes, which feature music and a little comic dancing, allow one to stand and stretch, which really is a necessity, at least if you are sat in certain of the Playhouse’s seats. I was in Pit Row D (again – but I’ll learn), jammed between two strangers who during the opening hour and more engaged with me in a subtle and slightly distasteful turf tussle for leg-room. Cushions have been added since my first visit but there is still the sense that one is paying a significant chunk of change (£45 on a normal night) for a refined form of torture. Try to remember, you keep saying to yourself, the play’s the thing – and not cramp, bum-ache and the painful torsion necessary to turn one’s side-facing body towards the stage.

Francis Beaumont’s play is a true oddity which is seen by scholars as the most experimental comedy of the Jacobean stage. As a drama begins entitled ‘The London Merchant’, Citizen and his wife (they have no other names) interrupt the action from the audience. They have had enough of clever-clever shows that make fun of the good people of the city and for a change they want to see a play in which a grocer is the hero. What’s more they can pay for this – and even better, their apprentice Rafe can take the role. What then unfolds is a mash-up of a city comedy involving a daughter being married off against her wishes, a mock-heroic tale of Rafe’s exploits as the eponymous knight with his pestle (yes, there are lots of jokes about that) and a noisy, disruptive commentary from the pair in the stalls.

For more on the play and its context, see Will Tosh’s richly interesting Shakespeare’s Globe blog post, Po-Mo with heart: mannerist theatre and The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

Pretty much every form of drama is parodied, including a ghost scene reminiscent of Macbeth and a Spanish Tragedy-type death that takes a fair few minutes, and there are numerous songs, dances and bits of business. It’s tremendous fun and the troupe have an infectious enthusiasm in the face of adversity that reminded me of nothing so much as the thespians accompanying the Crummles and their infant phenomenon in Nicholas Nickleby.

There is a good deal here about class attitudes in early seventeenth century London, about national identity, and about responses to tough times. The meta-theatricality is fascinating too, with a host of variations being played out as Citizen and spouse hand round snacks to the rest of audience, bicker, share a beer and mull on what they are seeing – and why they are not seeing enough of Rafe. But Adele Thomas’ production is mostly out for a good time, which last night was definitely had by one and all – even by this pain-wracked person in Pit Row D.

The Playhouse has put together a terrific cast, with McLynn and Daniels beautifully complemented by, among others, Alex Waldmann, Dickon Tyrrell, Paul Rider, Hannah McPake and Sarah MacRae. Kudos too is due to a really wonderful score by Nicholas Hess and to a small band who give it their all. The production runs until 30 March and there are still some, but not many, seats and standing places left.

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