The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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.

Don Quixote at the Garrick Theatre review ****

Don Quixote

Garrick Theatre, 2nd January 2019

Finally the Tourist gets to see this. Took a chance that it would, after the mostly strong reviews, eventually find a home in London, and waited for the run to settle in to secure a fairly priced ticket. If you are of a similar mind, and haven’t seen it yet, I would advise you to do the same in the remaining few weeks. I am not sure it is quite the triumph some of the criterati would have you believe but the spry adaptation of James Fenton, the creative staging under Angus Jackson’s animated direction and the straight man – funny man double act of David Threlfall and Rufus Hound make it impossible not to enjoy.

Indeed once you strip out the comedy, Rufus Hound’s audience patter, the gags, the pratfalls, the puppetry, the knowing asides, the gurning, the mugging, the bun fight, all superbly orchestrated by comedy director Cal McCrystal, this is actually a moving, and occasionally, insightful play. In that regard it captures the spirit of the Cervantes novel(s). DQ may be an aged eccentric, living in a fantasy world, harking back to a world of chivalry unknown by early C17 Spain, let alone today, but he is also a man of conviction and belief, and this, surprisingly, just about squeaks through in this RSC production.

As the bond between DQ and sidekick Sancho Panza develops, and as we see the melancholic DQ doggedly stick to his quest despite the incredulity of those around him, we get ever closer to the “real” character. Result: a hushed audience taking in a closing deathbed scene, (sorry folks DQ does snuff it), where DQ regains his sanity, that is both moving and poignant. That this should be so is in part due to the sincere warmth that a padded-out Rufus Hound brings to SP, but mostly thanks to the wonderful performance of David Threlfall. Whilst the rest of the cast shifts, swirls, sings and dances around him, playing characters who, predominantly see him as a figure of fun to be endlessly mocked, DT plays it absolutely straight, even when flying Peter Pan like above the stage.

Mr Threlfall is no longer, unfortunately, the most prolific performer on stage or screen. The Tourist has only seen him once before, in the Young Vic Skellig many years ago. The last TV outing I can remember is his performance in the valuable, if flawed, recent BBC/Netflix retelling of the Greek myths, where he played Priam. Now it looks to me like DT is only interested in parts that allow him to proudly display his magnificent silver hair and beard. For his Don Quixote there is a whiff of aged Frank Gallagher, in looks, if not moral complexion, with whiskers, straggly hair and crumpled stockings. After the humorous introduction to SP, his wife and the villagers, all it takes is a few quick deft touches, by both adapter and actor, before we are convinced that reading too many chivalric romances from previous centuries could inspire our geriatric hidalgo to become a knight-errant and set off on his fantastic adventures. He may be deluded but we believe that the world he sees is all too real.

A short three hour play (it breezes by) is never going to be able to capture the complexity of Cervantes’s picaresque novel. There is a reason, actually there are many reasons, why DQ is considered the greatest literary work from the Spanish Golden Age, indeed one of the greatest of all time, comparable with contemporary Shakespeare. The first “modern” novel indeed. It is both stirring adventure (the Tourist’s take on first reading when a tween) and fountain of intertextuality (the lesson from the second reading a couple of decades latter). It is tragicomedy, genuinely both funny and sad, a plea for the primacy of the individual non-conformist and a nuanced social commentary, a satire on misplaced nationalism, a discourse on the nature of truth and reality and a tragedy centred on the corruption of idealism. It is road movie, buddy movie, heroic fantasy, action movie, tall tale, parody, burlesque, fairy tale, slipstream fiction and psychological thriller.

Cervantes’s own precarious upbringing and life of adventure (duels, midnight flits, military service, serious illness, paralysis, years of slavery in Africa, prison sentences, stabbings, affairs) are reflected in its pages. It is pretty much the only work for which Cervantes is remembered but, despite the great success of Part 1 (1605) and then sequel Part 2 (1615) he barely made a penny out of it. He died in poverty a few days after Shakespeare.

All this sort of stuff was meat and drink to writers, and readers, in C17 Spain, and clearly given the speed with which its fame spread, the rest of the Western world, but its cultural ubiquity ever since speaks to its resonance. Films, TV shows, books, songs, paintings, illustrations, tapestries, sculptures, operas, ballets, tone poems. And of course a Broadway musical in the form of The Man From La Mancha. A quick perusal of London entertainment guides will show you that in the next few weeks you can see this very musical at the ENO or, should you prefer, Marius Pepita’s ballet version at the Royal Opera House.

Whilst not quite matching the stirring cheesiness of Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh’s To Dream The Impossible Dream, this production has plenty of catchy Hispanic-inflected songs courtesy of Grant Olding and James Fenton. This does add to the somewhat episodic nature of the production, as does the need to wheel out the various sceneries, props, puppets and the like. Then again that is entirely in keeping with the tone and structure of the novel, as is so much here, and there is enough pantomime distraction to maintain momentum. The attempt to mimic the meta-theatricality of the novels by having DQ’s fame preceding him in the second half is a little stilted but, again, offers something to chew on besides the generous humour.

The set design of Robert Innes Hopkins, in common with his other recent RSC outings, has an elegant simplicity (and he does like to emphasis the vertical), and another meta touch with the giant cut-out of our hero as a backdrop, and the lighting of Mark Henderson and sound of Fergus O’Hare expertly delineates the mundane from the fanciful. Most notable however is the puppetry of Toby Olie, notably a peckish falcon, an angry lion and some convincing sheep (though maybe not quite the army that DQ sees!). Now frankly the Tourist is a bit fuzzy on the art of puppetry so he can’t be sure that the constructions signifying horse and donkey, with their human appendices, fall into the category, but they are the basis for some mighty fine entertainment.