The bleakness of love: Closer, Donmar Warehouse/Kill Me Now, Park Theatre

They say that Park Theatre was deliberately constructed to resemble the Donmar. This month the programming oddly converges, with two savage relationship plays. The first is the revival of Patrick Marber’s 90s classic Closer at the Donmar, a tightly-constructed four-hander whose plot plays with a series of sexual permutations. Dan (Oliver Chris) and Alice (Rachel Redford) get together; Dan meets Anna (Nancy Carroll) and falls in love with her but stays with Alice; Larry (Rufus Sewell) and Anna meet and marry; Dan and Anna have an affair; Anna leaves Larry for Dan; Larry and Alice have a relationship; Anna goes back to Larry; Dan and Alice reunite; Larry and Anna split; Dan and Alice split. Put like that, it sounds like Midsummer Night’s Dream rewritten by David Mamet.cc051ed2-dd04-44ad-a0cc-c1a20a3c7a0b-1360x2040

When I saw it back in the 1990s I don’t think I properly appreciated the quicksilver shifts of fury, desire and neediness that Marber creates between the characters; each new relationship builds on the emotional residue of the previous one, so that every scene is layered with history of previous exchanges.

All the characters keep insisting on knowing the truth, but the truth always brings pain. Rufus Sewell’s deceptively mild delivery never obscures the rage and manipulation beneath. He absolutely dominates the second act, as Larry moves from bafflement at Anna’s desertion to a calculated relish of maximum revenge. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Redford as Alice, though I thought her reading of the character was right. Alice could so easily be played as your standard damaged child-woman, but she brought a welcome sincerity to the role. I quite liked the idea expressed in the Donmar programme notes that the fifth character of the play is Postman’s Park in Clerkenwell, to which the four protagonists variously return. Bunny Christie’s spare production design highlights the gravestones of the ordinary people buried there, their heroism a mute counterpoint to the self-indulgence of the main characters.

At Park Theatre, whose success is contributing to the gentrification of N4, they’re showing Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, whose bleakness resides in its subject matter rather than its narrative outlook. Jake (Greg Wise) has given up his career as a writer to look after his severely disabled son Joey (Oliver Gomm); Jake is helped also by his younger sister Twyla (Charlotte Harwood) and Joey’s best friend Rowdy (Jack McMullen). Jake’s isolation from the world is only tempered by his weekly trysts with Robyn (Anna Wilson-Smith).


The play charts a downward trajectory; Jake, for so long the carer, develops an incurable condition and has to be cared for. Throughout, we’re confronted with the difficulties of disability and desire: in the very first scene Jake, bathing Joey, notices that his son has an erection, and realises he now has to deal with adolescent sexuality. Eventually it leads to a masturbation scene involving two characters, the strangeness of which is entirely normalised within the emotional context. Wise puts in a strong performance, and I loved Jack McMullen as Joey’s best mate Rowdy, a boy with mild special needs whose dedication to his friend is both comic and heroic. The standout was Oliver Gomm as Joey, though. There will always be a debate over casting an able-bodied actor in the part, but this is a performance that will probably win awards, and is a beautifully-judged mix of tenderness and raging horn. Whereas in Closer love is narcissistic, in Kill Me Now it represents the little hope available. Take a tissue.



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Henri Scissorhands: Matisse and the ghost of Louis Aragon

Jazz: Pierrot's Funeral

Jazz: Pierrot’s Funeral

Dancers, bees, swallows, sharks, sword-swallowers, mermaids, stars: even first thing on a Sunday morning, the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern felt like a live show. Jazz (1947) was his first venture into cutouts, or ‘drawing with scissors’, as he put it. It features assemblages of dancers, elephants, clowns, pierrots, knife-throwers and most famously, Icarus – and is accompanied by Matisse’s swooping handwriting on the nature of his work. The process of creation is foregrounded throughout. Tate runs films on a loop of Matisse cutting into paper, and the speed and the dexterity with which he wielded the huge tailor’s scissors are remarkable. The famous blue nudes, too, are presented as if on a loop, staged on different walls around the room, allowing the viewer to circle from I to IV, and assess their variations.

Découpage is about the rough edges. It bears the marks of its construction. This performative element is signalled in this exhibition, which also features Matisse’s designs for ballet and the chapel in Vence. When he was commissioned to design the chapel he didn’t just stop at the stained-glass windows; his work extended to the chasuble worn by the priest, an adroit linking of man and place – or in the Catholic terms that the atheist Matisse would not have acknowledged, the linking of the human with the sacred space, which sees the priest as vessel.

Chasuble for the Vence chapel

Chasuble for the Vence chapel

Tate presents the work in clear biographical terms. Shadowed behind these visions of light and colour and memories of the South Seas is the enclosed space of the artist’s, one of which you occasionally catch a glimpse through Matisse’s figurative inclusion of a door or window to the garden beyond his room.

Ah, yes. The suffering artist in his room, the poignancy of his frailty, the picture of the door leading to a world that was denied to him. It’s all a bit close to the familiar trope of the tubercular/syphilitic artist (Van Gogh, Maupassant, et al) that riddles French cultural history. The pathos is a plangent counterpoint to the vibrancy of the colour, but I’m not sure we should be too hung up on Matisse’s immobility, since his cloister midwived a radical reinvention of his art.

Matisse’s friend, the avant-garde communist poet Louis Aragon, who is referenced numerous times in the Tate commentary, would have had none of this mimsy biographical approach. Aragon came to visit Matisse in the 1950s. In Henri Matisse, Roman, Aragon’s lengthy compilation of his memories of the artist – itself a bit of a découpage, by all accounts – he meditates on the relationship between painting and writing and argues for the work, not the man, to be considered. It all sounds suspiciously formalist for an intellectual who was so high up in the French communist party; his uncoupling of the art from the artist doesn’t entirely fit in with a Marxist aesthetic in which literature and art cannot be understood independently of its material production. But then, Aragon’s socialist realism never quite held fast. His collected essays on art written between the 1920s and 1960s and called – yes – Collages (1965) show him incessantly wrestling with the political and aesthetic problems of art and representation.

Anyway, Tate’s nod to Aragon’s dialogue with Matisse is an important reminder of the milieu in which Matisse operated prior to the Second World War and after his Fauvist period. Paris in the 1920s and 1930s was a laboratory of modernism; jazz was arriving, Russian, American and German emigrés thronged the Left Bank and the Surrealists had changed the game in art and poetry. You get a sense in the Tate exhibition of this creative explosion with Matisse’s scenery and costume design for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Rouge et Noir, choreographed by Léonide Massine to Shostakovich’s first symphony, but it doesn’t go near to expressing the ferment of ideas that was taking place at the time.

What really connects Matisse and Aragon is their interest in the relationship between art and poetry, and also a shared fascination with collage. Aragon’s early poetry conspicuously used collage techniques before his conversion to communism. Both men were trying to invent a new language, and in Aragon’s terms this went hand in hand with a political project (although like so many intellectuals he became disillusioned with orthodox communism after the invasion of Hungary in 1956.)

Just as Aragon mused on art in his essays, Matisse – who read poetry every morning before he worked – put out engraved illustrations of poetry that run the gamut of French literary history: medieval (Charles d’Orléans), Renaissance (Pierre de Ronsard) and nineteenth-century Symbolism (Stéphane Mallarmé). The backstory of the Matisse exhibition, then, is a sense of joint artistic enterprise and ardent experimentation in the mid-twentieth century Paris. It sure puts the Bloomsbury Group in the shade.






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Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, Barbican Centre

You arrive at the first room of the Gaultier installation in a room full of mannequins under blue light. They’re grouped into visual themes that echo the key motifs in his work: the sailor stripe, the mermaid, the Virgin Mary. Seeing the detail of the designs, is mesmerising enough – but then you realise the faces of the mannequins are moving, their lips are pursing, and their eyes are darting. That strange siren soundtrack? It’s being mimed by the collection of Virgin Marys on the left. Centre among them is a mannequin of Gaultier himself, riffing in English and then French about his work. It’s unearthly and entirely hypnotic. (I uploaded a ten-second video here. I don’t want to sound like Upworthy, but you won’t believe she isn’t real.)

Jean Paul Gaultier grew up in a dingy Parisian suburb, but the sea looms large in his creative vocabulary. Well, not the sea per se – he’s not exactly big on boats or starfishes – but the liminality of those associated with it, since the sea has always allowed for reinvention of identity. Gaultier’s sailor stripe is inspired by Fassbinder’s Querelle of Brest, itself based on Jean Genet’s novel, a celebration of an aesthetic of homosexuality and criminality, in which ports are full of outcasts and improvisers. The mermaid is half-woman, half-fish, and Mary, star of the sea, is both mother and virgin.

The Barbican exhibition, which features photography and video as well as 140 designs, is a theatrical staging that underlines the extent of his collaboration with unconventional models and muses and how how street fashion has informed his couture. You’re reminded of his creative partnerships with Peter Greenaway, Pedro Almodovar and Luc Besson; there are works by Cindy Sherman and Richard Avedon. In this context, Madonna is merely a bit player. Gaultier has always acknowledged his debt to London street fashion, but the parade of mannequins in tartan bondage don’t, I think, represent the best of his work; it feels more like tourism. Neither, I think, do his raiding of ethnic motifs.

Jean Paul Gaultier’s celebrity, via appearances on Eurotrash or as a prepackaged caricature on Absolutely Fabulous , can obscure the extent of his influence. But his alliances with Madonna, or Marilyn Manson, or Kylie Minogue, with their global distribution, have changed our visual language. As an enduring image, the conical bra takes some beating, though the exhibition quietly points out that Madonna wasn’t the first to wear his cone design. That prize goes to Catherine Ringer, the lead singer of left-field French band Les Rita Mitsouko, who wore a Gaultier cone dress in the video of Marcia Baila, easily my favourite French song of the 1980s – not that there’s a whole lot of competition (click here  for the song and video: it’s insanely catchy, and Ringer looks fabulous).

Stephen Jones for Jean Paul Gaultier

Stephen Jones for Jean Paul Gaultier


But Gaultier’s more than a dressmaker to pop stars. His mantra is simple, but challenging: “Les vêtements n’ont pas de sexe.” It’s hard to credit this happened, but when he first showed the man skirt in the 1980s, the Vogue team got up and walked out of his collection.

Over the years, Gaultier has always been pushing gender boundaries, but there are other instances where the playful meshes with the uncanny. His work with milliner Stephen Jones on reinventing a fez is particularly arresting, taking an etiolated Western cliché of the other into something genuinely disturbing by using fetish imagery. Those fez tails pouring out of eyeholes inevitably remind you of Stephen Jones’s Blitz club mate Leigh Bowery and underline Gaultier’s affinity not with punk but with the gender and performance experimentations of David Bowie and his New Romantic descendants.

Most striking throughout the Barbican installation is his rethinking of the dress back into its basic principles. This stunning version below looks like an abstract, a sketch, the bare bones of a design.

Jean Paul Gaultier: deconstructing the dress

Jean Paul Gaultier: deconstructing the dress

It is a red-carpet evening dress reduced to its constituent parts, a dress made not of yielding silk but consisting of rods and joists. Like a skeleton, it’s a dress that has to be filled with flesh to be worn, but it also nods towards the industrial construction of the crinoline, a structure that simultaneously constricted women but which also gave them physical heft to dominate a male-centred space. It’s a contradiction that Gaultier revels in.




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Chivalry in Liverpool

Our book club had a fantastic weekend of culture, food and drink in Liverpool in March. Just before our train home we ended up spending a couple of hours in the gorgeously refurbished Central Library, where there were two books on display that really caught the eye. One was Speculum Aureum Decem Praeceptorum, a collection of sermons based on the Ten Commandments by the fifteenth-century monk Henricus Herpf. It was published in 1481 by the Nuremberg printer and goldsmith Anton Koberger at a time when the Continental printing industry was beginning to flourish – Caxton only printed his first book in 1473, when the presses in Cologne, Bruges and Nuremberg were already going strong. It appears that Herpf ‘s meditations had a healthy readership regardless of political or confessional divides, given John Dee’s library contained a heavily-annotated book of his sermons. (Abe Books is currently selling one of them for £18,435.65, plus £29.83 p&p. I think I’ll pass.)chained book

If I’m honest, the real interest is the material detail that hints at how it was consumed. It’s bound in pigskin with its chain still attached – the last link has a bolt that is shaped to fit into a slot where it could run freely, presumably with other books in a collection. It’s a book made to be housed with others, which hints at an intellectual or devotional community – in this case, an institution in Gerpinnes in the Belgian region of Hainaut.

The second book of note is a stunning illuminated manuscript called Voeux du Paon (the vows of the peacock), written a century earlier in 1312 and dedicated to Thibaut de Bar, bishop of Liège. This copy (Phillipps MS 2582) is bound in 18th-century mottled calf and the head librarian tells me that it was bought in 1957 from a collection that was originally acquired by the antiquarian Sir Thomas Phillipps in the early 19th century. Phillipps was clearly an enthusiast of fourteenth-century verse romance, since he owned two other versions of the Voeux, all of which are from the same manuscript tradition with little dramatic variation among them. When the medieval scholar Edward Billings Ham compared the three in 1929, he found that what is now the Liverpool manuscript has less regional French dialect than its companions but the scribe’s calligraphy is not as fine as the others.

Verse romance, which on the whole (generalisation alert) was consumed orally, tends not to have quite so much in the way of iconography and this conforms to that – just 20 illustrations among the 132 leaves of vellum.

The Voeux du Paon, which is part of a cycle of texts around Alexander the Great, switches between warfare and leisure, between the battlefield and the courtly milieu; it starts off with the siege of the castle of Epheson where the attacker, Clarus, is trying to make Fesonas, the sister of Gadifer, marry him. Gadifer has some powerful allies, though; namely, the venerable knight Cassamus and Alexander himself. During the enforced leisure of the siege, the lords and ladies gather and the knight Porrus kills Fesonas’s peacock. To calm the gathering, Cassamus suggests the peacock be the focus of vows among the company, whereupon the knights pledge to perform great deeds.

My medievalist friend Mike Leahy tells me that there’s a very probable link between these peacock vows and Edward I’s feast at Westminster in 1306 where he pledged over a feast of swans to avenge various acts of aggression by Robert the Bruce and to fight the Saracens in the Holy Land. The feast of swans saw over 200 lords knighted at the same time, so it’s a key moment in the development of the ideology and culture of chivalry, particularly given Edward I’s propensity to appropriate Arthurian legend. It looks like the Longuyon text is therefore a classic example of refictionalising an original act, and how that piece of fiction in turn helps to create cultural rituals – a bit like the way that the jousts in Sidney’s Arcadia and the Elizabethan Accession Day tilts inform and create each other’s mythology. There was a subsequent rash of verse imitations of the peacock vows, too, such as the vows of the sparrowhawk and the vows of the heron (the latter dramatising Edward III’s decision to embark on what would become the Hundred Years’ War).

les voeux du paon 2

The transmission history of the Voeux du Paon is significant not just for initiating the cycle of texts around vows. It also marks the first appearance of the Nine Worthies, the three triads of great heroes whose examples span pagan, Old Testament and more recent history. They are: Hector, Alexander and Julius Caesar; Joshua, Judas Maccabaeus, and David; and Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon, who successfully besieged Jerusalem in the First Crusade. All are deemed by Longuyon as the perfect noble warriors, neatly co-opting the emerging cult of chivalry into a divinely ordained historical continuum. The Nine Worthies became embedded into high and popular culture, from tapestries to ballads. By the time of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Nine Worthies are well known enough to become comically misremembered by the middling-sort characters when they try and put on a masque for the aristocracy. It’s not chivalry being satirised there, but – much to the derision of the lords and ladies – the artistic pretentions of Holofernes, Nathaniel & co and their misappropriation of chivalric heritage, which is a slightly uncomfortable scene for a modern audience.

Even more excitingly, on the back of this I bought what I hope will turn out to be a magnificent historical bodice-ripper. The Vows of the Peacock, by Alice Walworth Graham (1955), is the story of Edward II, Isabella and Roger Mortimer. The blurb on the back tells me it’s about the ‘pageantry and scandal of a great court set aflame by a too-beautiful, too-ambitious woman’. Sounds just the ticket.

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Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales, Southwark Cathedral

From the grime to the clean-cut iambic,

Rime royale, rant or rap, get your slam-kick

I went to hear some Chaucer the other week. It was organised by Poet in the City, which puts on a variety of spoken-word events. This one involved a couple of hours listening to extracts of Chaucer in modern and Middle English and then the poets Lavinia Greenlaw and Patience Agbabi reading their adaptations. Hearing the Middle English was a shock to the ear – slightly Scottish, slightly Danish, mildly incomprehensible, you tune in and out of meaning. Lavinia Greenlaw read from her adaptation of fragments of Troilus and Criseyde – a bonus for me, as I’ve never read the poem – but the big draw was Patience Agbabi.

I was at university with Patience a long time ago. Back then she was a relatively shy English undergraduate with a wicked taste in Northern Soul music. Now she’s a fantastically successful performance poet. Her latest project, Telling Tales (Canongate, 2014 – buy it for any English student you know) is a retelling of Chaucer’s masterpiece. The writing is sinuously allusive with a diamond-sharp attention to form and rhythm; each version of the Tales she performed that evening (Prologue, Tale of Melibee, Man of Law’s Tale, the Franklin’s Tale, the Shipman’s Tale, the Prioress’s Tale) was distinctive. She is particularly strong in the different voices she evokes – she didn’t perform The Wife of Bath that evening, but it leaps off the page in the voice of a Nigerian woman, Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa.

patience agbabi

Patience Agbabi

Telling Tales reframes the premise of Chaucer’s work; this isn’t a group of pilgrims on a pilgrimage, but an open mic night at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Each performer is  given his or her own fictional – and very amusing – biography at the back of the book. The outstandingly inventive prologue, which mixes rap and jazz rhythms with high-culture wit, is spoken by the host, Harry ‘Bells’ Bailey. Check this clip for Patience performing her version:

Each of the tales was received rapturously that evening, but the eye-opener for me was ‘Unfinished Business’, a rewriting of the Tale of Melibee, which is about a man who returns home to find that his house has been invaded, his wife attacked and his daughter probably dead. Most of the original is a long and very dry disquisition on whether to avenge violence with more violence. Patience’s take on it is considerably more succinct than Chaucer’s, and rather than replaying the formal debate, focuses on the emotional aftermath of a traumatic event.

It starts off with a quote from Jonathan Nolan saying that at a distance, cowardice and forgiveness can look like the same thing. This idea of holding two differently-inflected versions of the same episode plays out in her version of the tale, a piece of formal virtuosity. As Patience spoke, the repeated phrases initially seemed incantatory; then, the audience realised that the lines were spooling backwards and the meaning was doubling up on itself, and in doing so, shifting perspective. Absolutely dazzling. Or, as my teenage daughter whispered to me, “That was sick.”



Conveniently, cowardice and forgiveness look identical at a certain distance. Time steals your nerve.

Jonathan Nolan, Memento Mori


That night, it rained so hard

it was biblical. The Thames sunk the promenade,

spewing up so much low life.

It’s a week since they beat up my wife,

put five holes in my daughter. I know who they are.

I know why. I’m three shots away from the parked car

in a blacked-out car park. My wife cries,

Revenge too sweet attracts flies.

Even blushed with bruises she looks good. She’s lying

on the bed, next to me. Honey, I’m fine.

Tonight I caught her, hands clasped, kneeling,

still from a crime scene.

I didn’t bring my wife to Gravesend for this.

What stops me, cowardice?

None of them, even Joe, has the right to live.

How can I forgive?


How can I forgive

none of them? Even Joe has the right to live.

What stops me, cowardice?

I didn’t bring my wife to Gravesend for this

still from a crime scene.

Tonight I caught her, hands clasped, kneeling

on the bed next to me. Honey, I’m fine.

Even blushed with bruises she looks good. She’s lying.

Revenge too sweet attracts flies

in a blacked-out car park. My wife cries.

I know why. I’m three shots away from the parked car

put five holes in my daughter. I know who they are.

It’s a week since they beat up my wife,

spewing up so much low life

it was biblical. The Thames sunk the promenade

that night, it rained so hard.

© 2011, Patience Agbabi

From: Poetry Review, 101:4, Winter, 2011/



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Tallis, In Jejunio Et Fletu

With fasting and tears the priests prayed: ‘Spare your people, Lord, and do not give your heritage over to destruction’. Between the porch and the altar the priests were weeping, saying: ‘Spare your people’.

Schola Assumptionis sang this text yesterday at a Latin mass (old rite) at St Anselm and St Caecelia in Holborn. It’s a setting by Thomas Tallis called In Jejunio Et Fletu, and it’s suitably Lenten. The rest of the music was solid Byrd – the utterly sublime Mass for Five Voices and a Gaude Virgo that is so little known you can’t even find it on YouTube.


I suspect In Jejunio Et Fletu is not sung very much because of the voicing; the one mezzo line is more of an alto part really, and there are two tenors, a baritone and bass lines. On first hearing it I didn’t much take to it, but by the third time I sang it in rehearsal the big sombre slabs of sound locked in my head and wouldn’t let go. There are a few versions available on YouTube, but some of them are a bit over-ponderous. I like this recording best.

In Jejunio et Fletu was first published in 1575 as part of Cantiones Sacrae, a large collection of sacred motets composed by Tallis and his pupil William Byrd. Tallis and Byrd dominated sixteenth-century English music, not just artistically but commercially; Elizabeth granted them the joint monopoly on music publishing. Of the Cantiones Sacrae, Tallis’s O Nata Lux is probably the most often programmed, but the other pieces haven’t quite made it into choral consciousness in the way that the Byrd masses have.

Cantiones Sacrae was an expensive product and the pair lost money on the printing. Buyers tended to be private individuals rather than institutions such as cathedrals. John Milsom has traced some of the motets in cathedral manuscript collections, and the Latin is almost invariably translated into English for consumption at Anglican services. Then again, Cantiones Sacrae wasn’t just a purely musical venture; it was a bit of cultural flag-planting and a deliberate act of ingratiation by two Catholic composers with the Protestant monarch. Byrd and Tallis each contributed 17 motets to mark Elizabeth’s 17th anniversary on the throne and her accession on 17 November.  Numerology aside, the coding isn’t hard to crack. The text of In Jejunio Et Fletu is taken from Joel 2: 17, Joel being a post-exilic prophet who writes about living under the heathen. For a Catholic living under the new Protestant settlement, the meaning is clear.

For more on this, check out Mathew Lyons’  fascinating review of God’s Traitors,  a new book by Jessie Childs on Catholic lives in Elizabethan England.


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The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I missed The Duchess of Malfi, so my trip south of the river last week was my first time at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which has been built to put on the sort of plays that weren’t originally staged at the Globe but at the indoor Blackfriars theatre. It’s a lovely intimate space, lit only by candles. The repertoire is non-Shakespearian– next up is Marston’s The Malcontent, and running right now is Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle performed at the Globe Theatre

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is proof that the post-modernists didn’t invent post-modernism. The play announced onstage is ‘The London Merchant’, in which Jasper the apprentice (Alex Waldmann)  is courting Luce (Sarah MacRae), the daughter of his master (Giles Cooper), but their love is forbidden. Sitting among us in the auditorium are the Citizen (Phil Daniels), the Citizen’s Wife (Pauline McLynn – yes, Mrs Doyle from Father Ted) and their apprentice Rafe (Matthew Needham). The grocer and his wife interrupt the play and demand that London characters – specifically Rafe – should appear and be given heroic roles. The apprentice duly joins the action on stage and the rest of the play is accompanied by a very funny running commentary by the Grocer and his wife – Neil Rhodes’s piece in the programme likens it to a Jacobean Gogglebox. The commentary and occasional direction from the Citizens – who now and then invade the stage – constantly take the plot of The London Merchant into random directions. Rafe’s noble deeds in Waltham Forest scare away Jasper’s mother (Hannah McPake), who, fed up with her drinking and prodigal husband, has run away with Michael, her favoured son. After various adventures in which Rafe defeats the giant Barbaroso (who is really the barber), Jasper pretends to be dead and then impersonates his own ghost, and all sorts of slapstick, the two young lovers win the merchant’s approval.

It’s probably a bit long at three hours, but it’s actually very funny.  It’s not just knockabout stuff, either; it’s terribly meta. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is actually three plays in one – the original play put on by the company, the chivalric play urged on by the grocer, and the ensuing final production that we, the real audience, enjoy, which is a comic synthesis of both of them. There’s explicit comedy of register too; Luce’s approved suitor Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell, in a Michael Fabricant wig) speaks in high-flown rhyming couplets that are far removed from the demotic speech of the lovers and particularly the grocers. ‘The London Merchant’ plot is straight out of the cynical City comedies of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, which usually involve spirited lovers outwitting their merchant fathers. But City comedies don’t offer heroism; what the grocer couple really want to see on stage is escapist chivalric literature, and they want to get involved.

Imagine Harry Potter rolled into Jason Bourne and you’ll get an idea of the stories that the grocers are after. These are the so-called Iberian romances, probably best filed under early modern guilty pleasures. They include the Palmerin series and the granddaddy of them all, Amadis de Gaule, which originated in Spain, were elaborated upon in French and translated for the first time into English by Anthony Munday in 1590. We had our own homegrown tales too, like Guy of Warwick, whose provenance goes back to the fourteenth century.

knight barber

Beaumont is having a lot of fun at the expense of the grocers and their insistence that they no longer be passive consumers of romance but active purveyors of it. You can see how much he is tapping into the satirical, anti-romance tradition personified by Cervantes. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is thought to have been performed in 1607; Don Quixote, which had been published in Spain in 1605, had its first English printing in 1612. By the time Cervantes is writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there’s enormous amounts to satirise. The Iberian romances are full of heroic battles, magic potions, jousts with masked knights, vicious giants, and the insistence on knightly honour and duty. Although chivalric romance is often pretty sexy (Amadis gets it on with the heroine Oriana before getting married) Rafe is modelling himself on the chaste Christian hero – rejects the advances of the princess of Moldavia. In this context the syphilitic overtones of the ‘burning pestle’ are particularly amusing given our hero’s obvious sexual innocence. What’s more, when Don Quixote and Rafe transplant their understanding of heroism into a ‘real’ context of innkeepers and barbers rather than knights and princes, their rigidity in the way they read the genre usually ends in their getting beaten up. The fight scenes in this production, by the way, are genuinely hilarious.

There’s not just fighting – there’s a lot of music , too, The songs are often fragments, primarily sung by Merrithought (Paul Rider), who’s clearly modelled on Falstaff but without the coherence or the ruined majesty. Some are from pretty more elevated musical sources – ‘Down, Down, down’ is a reference to the ‘Sorrow Stay’ in John Dowland’s Second Book of Songs and Ayres (1600), and ‘Sing wee, and chaunt it’ is from Thomas Morley’s First Book of Balletts (1595) But the majority of them are popular ballads.  ‘Nose, nose, jolly red nose’, and ‘Trole the black bowle’ end up in Thomas Ravenscroft’s songbooks – respectively, Deuteromelia and Pammelia (both 1609), where they nestle against a large collection of drinking songs, catches and theatre tunes. The theatre and the alehouse were central social spaces, and inevitably both were attacked by the godly. Mirth was a loaded concept in Stuart cultural politics; James I’s Book of Sports in 1618 sanctioned leisure activities on holy days, much to the disgust of strict Puritans.

Puritans were not all your black-hatted Zeal-of-the-land Busy types satirised by Jonson in Bartholomew Fair. They also made up the sober, God-fearing, Protestant commercial class that ended up being the backbone of Parliamentarian support in London during the Civil War – in other words, the class to which the Citizen and his wife belong. But mirth, Beaumont is suggesting, is available to all of us, and it doesn’t have to be anarchic; it can be creative. For example, the fun he has dismantling playgoing conventions of the fourth wall creates another play before our eyes. At the same time, drinking does not have to entail prodigal disintegration. Instead, it can be an agent of sociability.  The Knight of the Burning Pestle ends with a speech not from a hero but from the Citizen’s wife, who takes charge of the epilogue. She says to the audience directly: “I would have a pottle of wine and a pipe of Tobacco for you’ and pretty much invites everyone back to hers. It’s certainly not The Duchess of Malfi.

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