By Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton
Directed by Jo Davies
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Tuesday 27th May 2014
It’s over thirty years since we saw the previous RSC production of this play, and for all that it starred Helen Mirren in the title role, I can’t remember a thing about it. Those were early days in my Jacobethan immersion, so the unfamiliar language, odd characters and many and varied plot twists would have been harder to follow. Now that I’m much more conversant with the genre, I hoped I would find the plot easier to grasp, and it was indeed a much more rewarding experience. The language still caught me out a bit, mind you, so I’ll be keen to read the text before we see it again, but the production itself was very good fun, and it was lovely to see a number of the usual suspects back again for another season.
The Swan was in sombre mood for this one. Black cobblestones covered the floor, with a border of glass tiles. An iron framework went all the way across the back of the thrust, and turned out to consist of two wide gates which could be opened wide or angled to set up a variety of locations. A balustrade of similar ironwork went along the balcony above and round the sides, where lurked the musicians. A spiral staircase connected the two levels at the far right, and there were a couple of street lamps at strategic points, one being placed high up on the wooden pillar to the left of the gates. To complete the set for the start, a chair and footstool sat in the middle of the stage, and when the lights eventually came up I could see a long dining table at the very back of the space, behind the gates.
During the performance there were a lot of changes, usually covered by music and lots of people rushing around. For Sir Alexander Wengrave’s home there were display cabinets either upstairs or at ground level, and there was one scene in Mr Gallipot’s apothecary shop which had a back wall filled with bottles. The seamstress Mistress Openwork eventually rose from below plying her treadle sewing machine – we applauded (more on that later) – and there was a large metal chandelier which descended at times, allowing items of value to be hung from it to tempt Moll and from which she could swing. Hat stands, tailors’ dummies and miscellaneous furniture were whisked on and off as needed.
The costumes were Victorian, although Moll wore jeans and a shirt for her opening speech. She also sported five o’clock shadow, a pencil moustache and a snip of a goatee on her chin later on – no wonder she was mistaken for a man. Her ‘skirt’ was actually very wide culottes, and she looked very dapper in her dark grey suit with frock coat, top hat and cane. The only other anachronisms were the music, which was totally modern, and the dancing, ditto, but the reference to Bank Holidays (linking the inevitability of rain to those dates on the calendar – first laugh of the evening) just squeaks in as the production could potentially be set after the Bank Holidays Act 1871.
The plot concerned the attempt by Sebastian Wengrave to marry his beloved Mary Fitzallard by pretending to be so infatuated with Moll Cutpurse that his father, who had turned against Mary in hopes of a richer prize, would relent and let his son marry her after all. Along with this central storyline, we saw a couple of young rascals, Laxton and Goshawk, taking advantage of some of the female shopkeepers. Their schemes were underhanded and nasty, and I’m delighted to say that they got their comeuppance before the end. Meanwhile Sebastian enlisted the help of Moll to further his plans, and the play concluded very satisfactorily for all concerned.
The main musicians were all female – drums, guitar, sax and trumpet – but others joined in from time to time, especially after the dance at the end. Moll even played the “viol” (actually a double bass) in a simple way to accompany a song. The final dance was great fun, with everyone doing some kind of modern dance. The older folk were less physical, although Sir Davy Dapper did throw himself on the ground for a brief break dance moment. Tony Jayawardena (the Munshi in The Empress) did some Indian dance moves during his bit which were well received, and there was a lot of humour in the way the characters, especially the men, pranced around.
Other highlights included the apothecary’s wife, Prudence Gallipot, reading out a letter from her pretend admirer Laxton which had a number of classical allusions. Her look of bewilderment and complaint that she didn’t know who these people were was very funny. She also showed the letter to someone in the front row, and when her husband came along and she ripped the letter up, she handed the bits of paper to the same person, which raised a laugh. When Sir Alexander was eavesdropping on his son (who was well aware that his father was in earshot) he not only delivered his asides to us, he even came and sat at the end of the front row round the side to get a better view of what was going on – we loved it.
There was a problem with the trapdoor which meant that Mrs Openwork didn’t arrive on stage as expected for her first scene with her husband. He did turn up however, and, looking into the hole in the middle of the stage, said “my wife’s down there”, which made us all laugh. One of the back stage crew came on to explain the situation, then a few moments later Mrs Openwork emerged from below to receive her round of applause.
In the second half, the scene where Moll brought Mary to see Sebastian was a lovely piece of comedy. When Sir Alexander turned up, Mary had to be kept out of sight, and the double bass came in very handy for that, although Sebastian and Moll (pretending to be a French music teacher) had to keep on the move while Sir Alexander prowled around the stage. The unmaskings of Goshawk and Laxton were both very enjoyable; Goshawk tried to roll his hat down his arm and put it on his head, but it ended the wrong way up, and then Mr Overwork’s discovery of the situation left him absolutely terrified. Laxton tried to get even more money out of Gallipot by playing a one-legged lawyer sent with a writ against him and Mrs Gallipot. She soon exposed him for the cheat he was, and Mr Gallipot was so angry that his friends had to carry him to the side of the stage to stop him from attacking Laxton then and there.
Ralph Trapdoor, an older man hired by Sir Alexander to keep an eye on Moll, was also discovered trying to con people out of their money by pretending to be a war veteran, and there was a long scene where he delivered a lot of “cant” which Moll translated for young Jack Dapper. This led into a section of rapping between Ralph and Moll, with a lot of the other characters also on stage. This done, the only thing left to finish off was the main plot strand – convincing Sir Alexander to let Sebastian marry Mary.
To make sure his father was fully wound up, Sebastian came on with his bride, who was in a white dress and well covered with a white veil. This turned out to be Moll, and as she removed her wedding clothes, she threw the bustle up and it caught on the light. Fortunately the butler freed it, which meant that Moll could do her swinging from the chandelier without the bustle getting in the way. As the real bride walked across the balcony, Moll hummed a bit of the Wedding March, and she also intervened to check out the deed conferring property on Sebastian, before handing it to him. With his contrivances against Moll revealed, Sir Alexander promised to make amends with money; Moll wasn’t impressed and spat on the floor.
When the rest of the cast had left for the wedding party, Moll stayed on stage, and gave us a little story about a painter trying to please everyone and not succeeding. She came over to one side of the stage to ask pardon, and the first person she addressed apparently refused! So she went over to other side of the stage, where her request for pardon was accepted. This led into the closing dance, and we gave them plenty of applause to round off the evening.
© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me