The Theatreguide.London Review
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
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
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
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
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.
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