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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Knight Of The Burning Pestle
Barbican Theatre  June 2019

A Shakespeare-era English farce performed in modern dress and in Russian what's not to like?

Actually, this co-production of the British Company Cheek By Jowl and the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre is a lot of fun, though most of the fun lies in the play itself, with the production adding too little.

(Cheek By Jowl is an internationally touring company led by director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, with associations and residencies with theatres around the world. Here they work with actors and designers from the Pushkin, in what amounts to a Pushkin production with guest director Donnellan.)

Francis Beaumont's 1607 play is a metatheatrical romp in which actors trying to put on a serious drama are interrupted and taken over by an unsophisticated grocer and his wife from the audience who want more jokes, a happy ending and a role for their nephew Rafe.

As the actors try to ignore and then accommodate the invaders, the inner play and the supposed reality around it clash and merge in comic ways.

The grocer's wife repeatedly misunderstands the plot, sides with the bad guy and interrupts the action to offer advice or sympathy to the characters, while Rafe invents a role for himself the Quixote-ish title character who keeps barging in on a plot that has no place for him.

Beaumont's play is all very light and funny, neither the play the actors are trying to put on nor their exasperation at the interruptions taken very seriously, and the satire of the dimwitted invaders never particularly harsh. But neither the real Russian actors nor their British director add much to it.

Agrippina Steklova has a lot of fun with the total lack of self-awareness or internal censor in the grocer's wife, but everyone else seems vaguely uncomfortable, shackled and inhibited by either the underwritten characterisations in the text or the director's single-note guidance.

Declan Donnellan is unquestionably a director of insight and talent, but farce does not appear to be his metier, and opportunities to exploit the comic situations are repeatedly missed.

The supposed actors are far too languid and unaffected by the interruptions, and scenes that cry out for uninhibited broad playing are too often like a mock battle scene when Rafe's knight attacks the inner play's good guy just shapeless running about rather than the tightly-choreographed slapstick they clearly want.

The chances of your seeing another production of The Knight Of The Burning Pestle anytime soon are slim, and the ability to say your one encounter with the play was in Russian will add a certain cachet.

But despite a fair quota of legitimate laughs in this production, you are more likely to be aware of opportunities missed than of a good play enhanced.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Knight Of The Burning Pestle - Barbican Theatre 2019

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