The City Madam – June 2011

6/10

By: Philip Massinger

Directed by: Dominic Hill

Company: RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 10th June 2011

This play was written in the post-Shakespeare period and before the Civil War. While I could see elements of later Restoration comedy, we both spotted lots of ‘echoes’ of other stories, especially from Will’s work – the masque from The Tempest, the hidden authority figure watching a deputy’s behaviour from Measure For Measure, the statues coming to life from The Winter’s Tale, etc. etc. It’s a good job there were some familiar things in the play; for the most part, I found the first half difficult to follow, not helped by our long trip beforehand admittedly, but the sheer number of characters and the unfamiliar language didn’t help either.

The set was very simple. Two double doors centre back, flanked by two upright wooden chairs. That’s it, although there was a big painting across this back wall showing a young man kneeling at the feet of an older man, with another young man looking on. I took this to be the story of the prodigal son, although it wasn’t entirely clear how this fitted in with the play. Perhaps the program notes will help. Anyway, the chairs were painted to blend in with this painting, so it was hard to make them out. Other furnishings were added as needed – a table, cushions, etc. – and chandeliers dropped down from above.

There were puppets, too. For the masque, Orpheus and Eurydice, there were puppets for Orpheus, Eurydice, Cerberus and the hands that dragged Eurydice back to Hades, as well as three human singers and a bunch of musicians. The masque was very well done, and there were additional magic tricks, Prospero-like, carried out by the chief American Indian, including a burning book.

The plot was fairly straightforward. Sir John Frugal has a wife, two daughters, an ex-con brother and a vast business empire. He’s ruthless in his business dealings, but apparently unable to rein in the frivolous excesses of his wife and daughters, who spend their time, and his money, on increasingly lavish outfits and plans for the daughters to wed into the nobility. Sir John’s brother, Luke, is treated badly by these women, and appears to be a changed man. No more materialistic concerns for him. He revels in the new-found simplicity of his life, or so it seems.

A friend of his, Lord Lacy, believes that Luke is truly repentant, and tries to persuade Sir John to treat him better. Sir John believes he hasn’t changed a bit, and that if he were given half a chance, he’d be just as bad as before. I wasn’t clear about this plotting at the time, but I soon grasped what was going on when Lord Lacy announces to Sir John’s family that he, Sir John, has gone to a monastery and left all his worldly possessions in the control of Luke, in the expectation that he will take care of his sister and nieces and deal kindly with Sir John’s various, and many, debtors. With so much wealth suddenly thrust upon him, Luke has the chance to show his wisdom and humility and stun us all.

Don’t hold your breath. With the key to the Frugal treasury clutched firmly to his bosom, Luke is set to become the world’s most rapacious usurer – cold, merciless, avaricious. He starts to call in all the debts, but first he sets the people up for a bigger fall, encouraging them in their profligacy before setting the bailiffs on them.

Lord Lacy brings along three men from the newly established American colonies, who wish to be converted to Christianity. Their chief is clearly Sir John himself, while the other two are his daughters’ suitors, who wouldn’t accept the life of total slavery the women tried to impose on them as a condition of their marriage. These three work on Luke’s greed, and finally persuade him to hand over Lady Frugal and her two daughters, now in plainer clothes, in return for riches beyond his wildest dreams.

Having sent all his debtors to prison, Luke takes the time to threaten Lord Lacy with the loss of the lands which carry his title, before settling down to enjoy a birthday banquet and some entertainment which the Indian chief has laid on for him. The masque comes first, of course, but then all the arrested folk are led on in chains, to see if Luke will feel pity for them. No chance. So then the daughters come on with their mother, to say goodbye to their former suitors, now supposed dead, by speaking to their statues. None of this moves Luke at all. So at last the chief uses his magic to bring the statues to life (Winter’s Tale and Don Juan!), and the final revelations can take place, with Luke being stripped (literally) of his position, and sent out to fend for himself.

The story wasn’t complicated as such; the difficulty lay in the vast number of characters, and the fact that the doubling wasn’t always clear. We did spot the Indian disguises OK, but there were one or two other situations where we weren’t sure if the actors were playing the same characters in different clothes, or different characters. I accept that Massinger was attempting to show how widespread the decadence and corruption went, but I still feel there’s scope for some serious editing to bring the play into sharper focus.

There were many nice touches in this production which suggest it would be well worth seeing again. I liked the way the suitors staggered about a bit after being the statues – I’ve done life modelling, and I know how hard it is to stay still for that long. Unfortunately, the blocking really was blocking tonight, and our view was obstructed many times, which certainly didn’t help. We’ve booked seats in a different part of the auditorium next time, so that should be better. Also, the language isn’t as easy to follow as Will’s, probably because we don’t hear these plays as often as the Shakespearean cannon, and with the plot being unfamiliar, I just couldn’t follow it as well as I would have liked. Second time around should be better.

All the performances seemed very good (those I could see, anyway). I particularly liked Sara Crowe as Lady Frugal – her face had some wonderful expressions flitting across it – and Jo Stone-Fewings as Luke. His transformation from puritan to rampant miser was beautifully done, and for all his unpleasant behaviour, he also provided much of the humour.

Finally, it’s remarkable how modern some of the play’s points are, with so many people running up debts and not being able to pay them back. I could see the National doing another modern dress version of this one, like The Man Of Mode and The Revenger’s Tragedy, as it would fit right in to that style of production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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