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The Knight of the Burning Pestle at The Barbican

Nazar Safonov (c) Johan Persson
Nazar Safonov (c) Johan Persson

Some ‘classic’ plays deserve to collect dust on the bookshelves of libraries. But Cheek By Jowl’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle makes a bold argument for the work’s contemporary relevance, with a production that is both hilarious and biting. Declan Donnellan’s careful directorial hand left my jaw well-exercised with laughter and my brain whirring about the state of the world today.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is the earliest Parody Play, satirising both earnest stagecraft and the chivalric knights alluded to in the title, so beloved of tellers of tales both noble and bawdy. This play within a play, centred around two audience members interrupting the performance of a solemn morality tale was written by Francis Beaumont in 1607, the same year Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was first performed. So what might have tempted a Jacobean theatregoer to cross the river and choose this silly farce in preference to one of the Bard’s greatest tragedies?

The answer is contained in the play itself. A married grocer couple take to the stage to decry plodding, over-serious theatre, demanding something lighter, with knights and lions and blood. Plenty of blood. They continue to sit at the edge of the stage, observing the action and intervening when they feel the plot has taken a turn for the dreary, or in a direction that doesn’t meet with the wife’s idea of how things ought to unfold.

So far, so British. But this play, staged by the originally UK-based, now international, Cheek By Jowl is spoken in Russian, with English surtitles. The setting, however, remains resolutely UK-South-East, with some of the biggest laughs, unprompted, in response to references to being carried off to the wilds of Waltham Forest. I found it a shame that more isn’t made of the Russian connection, and it seems the explanation for the language is more to do with the company’s long-standing exchange of dramatic ideas with that country, rather than anything deeper or thematic that I could discern.

On the question of ‘why now?’, however, the play stakes a solid claim for relevance to modern audiences. In the grocers we find watchers of content who believe it should be tailored to their whims – art be damned. The ultimate consumers, they are paying for the production and feel entitled to be satisfied by what is performed for them. It is a credit to the cleverness of this rendition that the couple take up an ambiguous position. They rail against the lazy misogyny of the plot of the play-within-the-play, rather than falling into complicity through inaction, but are also the aggressors who the cast are powerless, or too cowardly, to resist. A final twist is put on this, where the true audience is invited to applaud a particular climax, enlisting us to support the grocers’ intrusion. Will we be left with something that satisfies our baser desires? In the words of the wife, “The ending should be positive so people go home happy.

Beyond this there is the further message, more relevant for our times than ever: that a comforting lie, told with bombast in simple words writ large can please an audience where deeper, more subtle truths might leave them cold.

The staging relies on a deceptively complex set masquerading as a minimalist one. It is impressive and allows a pacey telling to be sustained without the pain of slow scene changes. Donnellan’s choice to allow scenes to bleed one into another was masterful in the context of a play where there are no boundaries which are not to be crossed. That we are looking back to three hundred years before Brecht is astonishing for a play where the fourth wall is not just broken but demolished.

Perhaps one difficulty with this spin on a (possibly rightly) rarely-performed classic is that the eponymous knight should be a welcome break from the sombre narrative the players were hoping to perform. In this production, he feels something of an irrelevance, crowbarred in via the grocers for the sake of petty laughs. I found the (somewhat repetitive) joke of the couple seeking time in the limelight for their ‘A-for-effort C-for-talent’ nephew a distraction from the main storylines, while I imagine we are supposed to delight in these being trodden over.

So what to make of it overall? As you might expect from a play that will fill and deliver to an audience the size of the Barbican’s, it soars above what one might imagine are pet projects of directors, hoping to revive shelved classics which don’t really deserve staging. Donnellan shows again how he can bring fresh eyes to texts that others might willingly allow to be forgotten, and why his productions are invariably ones to seek out. The biting narrative of complicity-in-oppression is so finely balanced in this performance that I am convinced it has relevance to today’s audiences, who would do well – when they have the chance – to give Caius Marcius Coriolanus a miss, and go and visit The Knight of the Burning Pestle instead.

4 stars

Review by Ben Ross

The London Merchant, a play about two dysfunctional families begins. But suddenly, from the audience, a grocer and his wife clamber onto the stage, explaining to the astonished actors that while they quite like the play, it could be better and more exciting. Apparently, singing, dancing, an exotic foreign location and the appearance of a knight are the missing ingredients. Luckily, their apprentice Rafe is just the man for the job.

Director: Declan Donnellan; Designer: Nick Ormerod; Lighting designer: Alexander Sivaev; Composer: Pavel Akimkin; Choreographer: Irina Kashuba; Assistant director: Igor Teplov.

Cast: Kirill Chernyshenko (Jasper), Alexander Feklistov (Grocer), Anna Karmakova (Mrs Merrythought), Danila Kazakov (Michael), Andrei Kuzichev (Humphrey), Sergei Miller (Venturewell), Alexei Rakhmanov (Mr Merrythought), Nazar Safonov (Rafe), Kirill Sbitnev (Tim), Agrippina Steklova (Grocer’s wife) and Anna Vardevanian (Luce).

Produced by Cheek by Jowl and Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre
in a co-production with the Barbican, London; Les Gémeaux/Sceaux/Scène Nationale;
Centro Dramático Nacional, Madrid (INAEM)

Performed in Russian with English surtitles
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes, no interval

THE KNIGHT OF THE BURNING PESTLE
By Francis Beaumont
5—8 Jun 2019
https://www.barbican.org.uk/

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