The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Barbican Theatre, 8th June 2019
The Tourist has fallen embarrassingly behind on his documentation of a cultural life. Ironically because he has been on holiday. Unfortunately for you though this is not (yet) one of those countless dormant blogs, casualties of time and application. So back to early June, the Barbican and the inestimable Cheek by Jowl. But this time the Russian ensemble under the direction and design of Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod. The last time they visited was 2015 with Measure for Measure, though I venture I recognised a couple of cast members from the rep season earlier this year of the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre (on this stage, of course) who make up the CbJ company.
Now The Knight of the Burning Pestle makes a fair claim to being the first work of meta-theatre in the English language. Written by Frances Beaumont in 1607, and first published in 1613, it is a satire on the chivalric romances of earlier centuries, in a similar vein to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which specifically parodies the work of contemporaries Thomas Heywood, The Four Prentices of London, and Thomas Dekker, The Shoeman’s Holiday. CbJ stick fairly closely in this adaptation to the original plot, though of course, delivered here in Russian with English sur-titles. Which heritage provides inspiration for a further twist. Since before the grocer George and his wife Nell emerge from the audience to berate performers and director on stage, and subsequently promote the acting “talents” of their inept nephew, we are treated to some hard core minimalist European auteur theatre (of the type that CbJ itself excels at). Monochrome, mannered and mystifying, beginning with actors shuffling up chairs in hands, even a few minutes of this leaves the audience feeling like it is going to be in for a long, “high concept”, night.
So that the laughs which come when Alexander Feklistov and Agrippina Steklova, our “low” culture delegates, pipe up, are as much from relief as from the character’s gaucheness in breaking theatrical convention. They want to be entertained (we later find out they couldn’t get tickets for The Lion King!) and demands changes. Our bemused director Tim (Kirill Sbitnev), the spit of Brecht, eventually persuades then to sit stage left and we return to the staging of “The London Merchant” but it is not long before the couple call young Rafe (Nazar Safonov) to the stage and insist he be allowed to act out his own “knight (grocer) errant” role complete wit burning pestle heraldic device, apparently a medieval knob gag.
The actual play concerns the attempted elopement of Jasper Merrythought (Kirill Chernyshenko) and Luce (Anna Vardevanian), who is betrothed to toff Humphrey (Abdrei Kuzichev). The lovebirds dream up a fake elopement scam, Jasper’s long suffering Mum (Anna Karmakova) decides to leave his feckless Dad (Alexei Rakhmanov) taking younger brother Michael (Danila Kazakov), there is some jewellery, a coffin, fights, testing of devotion, but all ends happily. At the same time the hapless knight Rafe gets in on the action, swanning off to Moldavia, rejecting a princess, before, egged on by his employers, giving us his ostentatious death scene.
Amongst all this meta upon meta upon meta conflation, (the set is a rotating cube, each scene is announced by Brecht-like projections, there is live video, obvs, there is a psychedelic-dance-dream routine to thumping techno), the daft story is actually quite entertaining, the crack Russian cast, especially Mr Feklistov and Ms Steklova, actually manage to project real character, and there are a fair few laughs, even if of some of the theatrical in-jokes went over my head. And the serious point about what theatre is for and who “owns” it, audience, writer or performers, is deftly made. Of course the Tourist would expect nothing less from Messrs Donellan and Ormerod. And even if the main, conceptual, joke wears a little thin after a while the whole thing is wrapped up in 90 minutes and thus easily forgiven. Apparently in versions that stick to the original text this can top 3 hours.
Francis Beaumont started out as a lawyer before studying with Ben Jonson no less, and went on to write in partnership with John Fletcher who collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio. On the strength of this it would be interesting to see a new take on the Beaumont/Fletcher collaborations which generally went down well with Jacobean audiences, in contrast to TKOTBP which bombed apparently as the punters failed to appreciate the irony and satire. Which, if you think about it, probably gave Beaumont a great deal of pleasure given that his play is about the failure of an audience to appreciate the play presented to it. I also wonder what they would make of current popular culture, dripping as it is, with self-reverential, meta-, post-modernism.