When Shakespeare’s Globe was built in the 1990s, the plan was always to have 2 theatres on the site – one of course being the open air Globe Theatre – but their budget fell short of being able to cover the costs of building an indoor candlelit Jacobean-style theatre, so space was left and the empty shell was used as a rehearsal room for over a decade. But for the last few years, they’ve been fundraising (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve put in a fiver here and a tenner there) and building the sort of theatre that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would’ve been familiar with – and I finally got to see it in all its glory last week for a performance of The Knight of the Burning Pestle. It is BEAUTIFUL. With its oak framed U-shape and seating for just 340 people, it is wonderfully cosy and intimate – and right now, it contains the silliest play in all of London Town.
Rather than ‘a play within a play’, this is almost a play outside of a play. We the audience are gathered to watch The London Merchant but there’s a commotion in the front row; Citizen (Phil Daniels) stands up to complain that plays are always about the nobility and that there should be more plays about ordinary people, so he suggests that the players include his apprentice, Rafe (Matthew Needham) as a knight in their story. The Citizen and his busybody Wife (Pauline McLynn, best known as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted) then spend the evening upstaging the players by noisily eating roasted nuts out of a paper bag, offering them around their nearby audience, talking over the actors and interfering with the plot when Rafe has been off stage for too long. It is utter mayhem and you never quite know what situation they’ll dream up next.
The players valiantly try to carry on with their tale of The London Merchant in spite of the frequent interruptions – the Merchant’s headstrong daughter, Luce (Sarah MacRae) is engaged to be married to wet blanket Humphrey (Dickon Tyrell), but instead she has fallen in love with the devil-may-care Jasper (Alex Waldmann), the son of Mr Merrythought (Paul Rider), a rather Falstaff-like character, and his moralistic wife Mistress Merrythought (Hannah McPake).
Each scene is bookended with a traditional Boy (Samuel Hargreaves) who gracefully presents placards and plays the lute. It seems that two stage hands, Tim and George (Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan), have been enlisted as squires on Rafe’s great quest, much to their annoyance. But it is these two who provide endless amounts of comedy, shuffling about rather like the little men you’d see on a cuckoo clock, falling over, turning the Boy into a human maypole, almost strangling him with ribbons.
It’s occasionally confusing to watch, but you can tune into the language very quickly and there is so much slapstick that it almost doesn’t matter which plot we’re in – when the Merrythoughts and their precocious son Michael (Giles Cooper) set out to rescue Luce, they enlist Rafe and his companions to fight Jasper, which soon descends into chaos as various character flail about with swords, clamber through the audience and tear around the outer perimeter of the auditorium (there’s a wonderful moment when a face slides down a window) and tumble back onto the stage in a mess of shouting limbs. Brendan O’Hea also plays a variety of increasingly ridiculous characters (as requested by the Citizen’s Wife) including a pirate and a grotesque giant.
But in total contrast, there are some darker moments of drama where a candlelit venue really comes into its own; all of the candelabras can be raised and lowered on ropes – so during one scene they were brought right down, hovering just a foot off the stage floor – the total change in atmosphere was incredibly effective, to the point that you’d almost forgotten that you were watching a comedy.
At times the whole thing descends into utter nonsense – but very entertaining nonsense. Yes it is far-fetched, but this is a zany satire on badly behaved audiences, a problem which remains in theatres today with mobile phones, chattering and rustling. If you are happy to put realism on hold for an evening, this rebellious comedy will have you grinning from ear to ear all the way home.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT until Sunday 30th March 2014. For tickets and information, go to http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/sam-wanamaker-playhouse/the-knight-of-the-burning-pestle