The boy-actors who, circa 1605, first performed Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One would surely have delighted in the amount of crotch-thrusting that occurs in the first half of Jenny Eastop’s current production at the Rose Theatre, Bankside, drawing our attention to the obsolete significance of words which we may have been in danger of thinking innocent – like ‘do’. But this over-simplfying, stock-in-trade signifier of ‘naughty’ Renaissance sexuality sits oddly in what is otherwise a swish and lean re-imagining of the play.
Almost half its original vice-scourging length, Eastop’s production dispenses with Middleton’s subplot and presents only the main story of young Theodorus Witgood (Jonathon Reid), who, in an effort to convince his uncle that he is a deserving heir, passes off a courtesan (Alexandra Ryall) as his rich widowed fiancée. Ryall and Reid used the space extremely well to engage the audience, with Ryall feverishly muttering a prayer with her face turned towards us when her true origins are unveiled.
Eastop’s decision to set the play in the late 1940s, with an emphasis on rationing and blackmarket dealing, a hypocritical obsession with female chastity, and a grasping, wheedling, whining , self-serving, wine-addled set of male characters who provide a stark contrast to the glorious heroes and noble sacrifices of wartime ideals, resonates perfectly and accessibly with the world Middleton originally created.
At times, and in the first half especially, the action bounces between being a little too nervy or a noticeably slow to crystallise. The arrival of Cameron Robertson, who plays Witgood’s uncle Pecunius Lucre, onto the small playing-space dispels any staginess that has begun to grow like cobwebs in the chilly vault of the Rose. Robertson has a warm, natural and very robust delivery and a naturalistic gesture that enlivens the early modern verse whilst embodying a believably sure and gamesome 1940s paterfamilias.
The physical comedy (borne by a doubleact of Michael Watson-Gray and Alana Ross playing a variety of roles) can seem a little obtrusively choreographed and practiced at times. However Watson-Gray comes into his own in the final scenes as the luxuriously snide brother of Lucre’s rival, Onesiphorous (Greek for ‘profit-bringing’) Hoard. Retching at first at the very sight of the notorious Courtesan daring to assume the role of Hoard’s wife, he ends up shoving a fist into his mouth in delight as she describes her past life in intricate detail.
This is a play where a central triad of characters are all pretending to be someone else: the Courtesan makes believe she is a widow and deceives Hoard into thinking she loves him; Witgood is her bogus jilted fiancé; and his friend the Host (Robbie Capaldi) joins in the charade by disguising himself as their servant. At times I wished that these characters had allowed both sides of their personae (funloving Courtesan and demure widow; moneygrabbing chancer and effortlessly wealthy heir; Host and deferent servant) to stay constantly visible. Unless the text explicitly called for asides, we tended to see just one facet of each character represented to us at once.
As a home for early modern theatre, the Rose (discovered just 25 years ago) is an eerie dream; the muggy darkness of a vast, puddly archaeological site semicircles the tiny wooden stage-space where the main action of A Trick to Catch the Old One takes place, always threatening to swallow it up yet endowing it too with some generously booming acoustics.
The cast put the glimmering water-filled pit that represents the site of the original Rose Theatre to suitably magical use as the Courtesan and Hoard stage their getaway by boat. Like the theatre itself, this production is a pared-down and slate-hued, a contrast to the sumptuous, technicolour Elizabethanism of the Globe next door.