Watching Frances Beaumont’s subversive 1607 meta-comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, is like re-living one of those nightmarish teenage social moments where you panic about not getting the joke that everyone else finds funny. Tonight is one of those nights.
There are so many cringe worthy japes in this play, it’s hard to fathom why most of the audience are in hysterics-unless they’ve been planted there by the theatre company. Whether it’s a character telling his wife she’s a “fat cow” or a mobile phone ringing mid-show in the vein of Monty-Python, the laughter is not polite behind the hand tittering, but full on roaring from the belly. This is popular stuff. Everyone around me is loving it. So I’m trying to throw myself into the spirit of the evening.
Jokes apart, Beaumont was pretty much on it for early modern times. Behind all the ultra silliness sits the premise of a play that’s about fisticuffs between audience and theatre makers. We witness a play that goes wrong and a stage director toppled from authority as the popular voice comes crashing in demanding less pretentious drama.
Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod do a fine job in collaborating with Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre pushing this message by condensing 3 hours of text into an hour and 40 minutes, whipping this unwieldy beast into a snappier contemporary form. The result is a breezy, fast moving burlesque circus that whisks airily between plays with familiar Cheek By Jowl style, sewing in thoughtful movement direction, clever sets and surtitles from Russian to English.
Sending up self-referential European theatre, the evening opens with actors prancing out of the wings, dressed in drab colours with sullen faces, pacing the boards in processional lines, cradling a chair each. They proceed to find a space, plant chairs and slump into them like a gang of moody Goths. Meanwhile, an eighties style score of electric industrial music builds the mood of dystopian doom and gloom.
In the centre sits Cheek By Jowl’s trademark looming white cube that doubles up as a revolving set for the show, creating a clever sense of place for scene settings. It’s used in the opening scene as a screen featuring black and white Orwellian footage of the director of the “serious” play wearing black thick-rimmed glasses intensely staring out, muttering about “concepts.”
The group of gloomy actors proceed to project a similar collective expression I recently spotted in a GSCE devised drama group as they embark on performing, The London Merchant – a ridiculous play that sets out to “examine the true essence of human nature.” Drawing on rich language with flowing rhythm, we are momentarily lulled into the world of seductive Russian sounds, something about bees and love and passion – lots of it.
Such navel gazing soon bursts wide open as the fourth wall crumbles into dust and two audience members clamber onstage waving shopping bags, proclaiming in shouty voices that the show is rubbish and the players need some tips from us, the audience. Enter George the grocer, and his Mrs, Nell, who hold tight the dramatic reins of the pantomime pony from here on in and also inject some light relief away from the serious European theatre troupe.
The two characters are warm, relatable and familiar. Memories of my Russian Jewish aunties leaving cheeks red raw, with all the pinching and cajoling, come flooding back. They like nothing more than thrusting their own flesh and blood out into the limelight like lambs to slaughter. And true to form, George and Nell, not only heckle for their nephew, Rafe, to come out of the auditorium and up onstage, but propel him into the centre of action as clownish romantic Knight of the Burning Pestle, pontificating Shakespeare. The poor boy doesn’t know what’s hit him, but he soon picks up pace drawing out the show’s pantomime spirit.
George and Nell dominate the rest of the drama with their endless interruptions. They want their pound of flesh from the players, a tale about “normal” people and something they can relate to. After all, they explain, given they are the ones that paid to see the show, they want to see “Less concept-more scenery. ”
Undoubtedly, the strongest moments come from this double act – brilliantly played by Alexander Feklistov and Agrippina Steklova – with Nell leading the cast in a Broadway style song and dance routine she was hoping to see in a West End musical as Nell’s only here because “The Lion King sold out.” Such number lift the production in its last, flagging minutes, proving that not only can the Moscow troupe act, but can dance too.
While it ends on a note of light-hearted jollity, I can’t help wishing that for all the energy expelled in performance, the evening could move me beyond the silly jokes and flirty romps through theatrical genres into something more meaningful.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is on at Barbican till 8th June. More info here.