You know that one couple at the theatre? They keep rustling their candy wrappers during serious moments, and the wife keeps asking what’s going on and the husband has a lot of opinions about the subject matter and relative merits of the characters? Sometimes they kiss and you wonder where, exactly, they think they are? Well then, you’ve already met the heroes of Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. 

‘Heroes’ might be a strong word. The Citizen and his Wife recognize that they themselves are not exactly the stuff of heroic drama. But that’s why they have to interrupt the new play being put on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to insist that their apprentice, Rafe, play a present-day (present-day being roughly 1600) knight errant who will bring glory to the Grocer’s Guild of London. The play is ostensibly about a company trying to put on a production of a supposed new play called The London Merchant, a fairly cliché story about the forbidden love between a merchant’s daughter and the merchant’s apprentice. But at George and Nell’s insistence, and to the frustration of the cast, this becomes interspersed with the tale of Rafe, the Don Quixote-like knight errant who is sent on increasingly disjointed errands to please the tastes of his excitable and, we are meant to understand, profoundly middle-class master and mistress.

But the real story is about George and Nell. Those are their names, by the way. We all laughed when a professor rather indignantly pointed out that we ought to call them by their given names, but I’ve come to agree. ‘Citizen’ and ‘Citizen’s Wife’ are such cold and dehumanizing titles, but George and Nell are the warm, beautiful heart of the play. Sure, they can barely sit still for more than the length of a scene, but the strange, comic character sketch of the grocer and his wife is much more interesting than what they players are actually trying to offer.

Because of this structure, Burning Pestle could easily suffer from what I think of as the “Pippin problem”: in order for the interruptions to the very traditional form to work, you have to spend so much time establishing it that ultimately, you mostly end up watching a pretty cliche play that is only interspersed (or concluded) with moments of interesting frame-breaking. But here, director Adele Thomas has recognized that the heavily formulaic plot means that the scenes can stand a great deal of interruption and distraction without making the story completely incomprehensible. So, the ‘real’ actors are just as ridiculous as George and Nell, and just as much time is spent making fun of the pretensions of actors as of the citizens’ complete ignorance of audience etiquette.

This is a leveling which the text does not necessarily demand, but which works tremendously. One of the most notable examples is the character Jasper, the handsome romantic lead of the comedy the players are attempting to perform, and who sticks most doggedly to trying to present the play as written. Nell takes an instant dislike to him, a funny and strangely contemporary-feeling metatheatrical comment on the fact that, were she a character in such a comedy, she would certainly be the disapproving wealthy mother sneering at a character just like Jasper, the poor suitor of her daughter. In the text of the play as I read it, there is irony in her distaste, and comedy in the audience’s recognition that Nell (though she does not know it herself) has picked the “wrong” side. But instead, in this production, Jolyon Coy’s Jasper is a pitch-perfect depiction of a self-centered diva, furiously indignant when anyone dares step on his big moments and fantastically greedy for applause. We are allied with Nell in our distaste for him (hilarious though he is), especially when he gleefully seizes the opportunity, under the guise of a fight scene, to ‘actually’ beat Rafe up.

This scene is almost the last straw for George and Nell as well.  For what pulls them through the play is partly their enthusiasm at shouting out suggestions for new scenes, and partly the comedy of their bad manners, but mostly their effusive love for Rafe. This mostly takes a comic form, of course, but Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn so skillfully root it in something genuine that it never loses its humanity. Both George and Nell have one speech each in which they brush ever so gently against tragedy, and the acting and directing of both of these moments are some of the deftest transitions from funny to moving and back again that I have ever seen.

Matthew Needham’s Rafe is the perfect object for these affections. Needham perfectly executes the very difficult task of portraying Rafe’s utter guilelessness and surprise revelation of a credible talent for acting without any hint of artifice or commentary. Towering over most of the cast yet hesitant to take up space, undeterred from his performance by rest of the cast’s frustration yet always obediently answering to his master and mistress’s summons, Rafe is entirely and irresistibly charming, and the audience’s ability to entirely share George and Nell’s love for him is yet another way in which their interjections are rendered not laughable, but a game in which we are eager to join them.

I was encouraged by the woman at the box office to splurge on a ticket in the pit– which is obviously her job, but also sound advice. The sense of community participation were palpable where I was sitting, but I have a feeling the infectious joyfulness would not have spread quite the same way in the upper galleries, where you’re not near enough for Nell to pass you a grape, or George to wander over during one of the short musical interludes and strike up a chat (both of which happened to me). By the end, the pit and lower galleries at least had become remarkably vocal, with gasps and cheers to match what I’ve sometimes experienced in the yard of the Globe– but with the increased feeling of unity as a single audience that comes from a very intimate space.

The costumes (gorgeous, as always, and designed by Hannah Clark) are basically of the period, but the use of the Wanamaker’s lighting is not: lights from the voms and from under the seats are used in most instances to supplement the candlelight, and occasionally to provide colored lighting effects. This works well– however bright the chandeliers would have seemed to a Jacobean audience, the candlelight is just too dim to seem fitting for a comedy today. Plus, candles alone would not sufficiently light George and Nell, who are seated in the pit, rather than on stools on the stage as they are in the text.

In its time, The Knight of the Burning Pestle was a pretty massive flop– possibly because audiences just didn’t know what to make of its fourth-wall-shattering metatheatricality. Or possibly because the audience was a little too full of exactly the kind of middle-class theatergoers that the script was designed to mock. But this production insists that there is pride in being allied with George and Nell, in laughing at stupid slapstick comedy and cheering for impassioned pre-battle speeches (no matter how completely detached from the narrative) and just wanting them to skip all the boring bits and bring your favorite character back onstage. There’s something quite cheerfully subversive, in fact, about what the play ultimately offers: permission to engage sincerely– loudly, quietly, however you please, but without etiquette or pretension or artifice– with the theatre. 

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