The second production at Shakespeare’s Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse is Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Written in or around 1607, if you haven’t heard of the play, its startling post-modernity will blow you away. For those already in the know this is a clear, clever choice for the new theatre that shows it off to its very best. And just in case you aren’t interested in literary history, it’s also a cracking night out that will have you in fits of laughter.
Taking their seats in the pit two citizens, played by Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn, take objection to the entertainment on offer. “Something troublesome” in their ignorance of the performing arts, they’re the first source of fun. One couple you don’t mind making a noise in the theatre, offering around grapes and sweets, a restrained performance from Daniels allows McLynn’s to shine as the adorable, if occasionally blood thirsty, matron who invites us all to her house for a drink afterwards.
Commandeering the stage the stage, they want something that praises their profession and enlist their apprentice Rafe (endearingly portrayed by Matthew Needham) to take on a chivalrous role. And since they are grocers he becomes the titular Knight of the Burning Pestle. Beaumont’s satire on chivalric romances could easily be niche, but director Adele Thomas uses great comic performances from Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan, co-opted as his squire and dwarf, to get the giggles; Pythonesque touches and acrobatic slapstick – anything and everything to make you laugh.
At the same time, the players valiantly continue the original play, about a London merchant. Another contemporary satire, its critique of greed in the city is sure to hit home today. A story line about an apprentice in love with his avaricious master’s daughter, is hammed up marvellously by the talented John Dougall and the superb Sarah MacRae. Their duet in song is a real highlight of the night. All the interruptions create an improvised feel full of fun, and frequent musical intervals add to the jolly atmosphere.
Believe it or not, with all this going on, there’s another important theme within The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Again commented on by the citizens, again brought out marvellously by Thomas: the character of Merrythought, performed commendably by Paul Rider, is a mysterious figure of mis-rule, anarchy even, dedicated only to mirth. Thomas identifies this as the play’s keynote and makes it a deep, sonorous one. Remarkable musical numbers are just one element of using the new playhouse at its best; Thomas is like a child with a new toy – an entirely appropriate way of dealing with this text. A fascinating play fantastically directed.
Until 30 March 2014
Photo by Alastair Muir
Written 28 February 2014 for The London Magazine