The Theatreguide.London Review
John Marston's 1604 satirical drama is better known to graduate students in English literature than to the world at large, but as part of an RSC season designed to remind us that Shakespeare wasn't the only playwright operating in London 400 years ago, it is a fascinating rediscovery and the occasion for an inventive, perhaps occasionally over-inventive production by Dominic Cooke.
The plot is complex to the point of defying comprehensible summary, but essentially a wronged and banished duke is hanging around the court of his usurper in the disguise of a curmudgeonly grumpy social critic, hurling his curses and insults about with such wit that he is treated like a court jester. In that guise he foments trouble, using his enemies' own inclinations to betray and turn against each other to get his revenge.
The play is thus an opportunity for Marston (who was considerably to the left of the always conservative Shakespeare) to skewer the hypocrisies of the great and the abuses of the powerful. The writing is rarely more than pedestrian, though, and every time the title character goes into one of his critical rants, one senses the missed opportunity to really let loose with colourful and biting eloquence.
It is as close to being a one-man show as, say, Hamlet is, and the evening belongs almost entirely to Antony Sher, who makes the most of his opportunities. His malcontent is part cartoon character, part Lenny Bruce, part Woody Allen, part Groucho Marx, savouring the opportunity to spit out his venom with the extra irony that his victims eagerly lap it up and even vie for the privilege of being cursed. It is rare for a dramatic character to have both the moral high ground and the ability to out-think everyone else, and Sher shows us a man so born to his disguise that the eventual happy ending might even be a letdown for him.
Few others in the cast have much opportunity to shine, though Joe Dixon has some fun with the hero's real enemy, the second-in-command to his usurper, who has a mock-eloquent speech in praise of the glories of being a toady, but then doesn't hesitate to double-cross his boss when the opportunity arises and to become an even more puffed-up despot.
For no special reason except that it is colourful and does work, director Cooke has set the play in a modern Latin American country, with tinpot tyrants dressed like Juan Peron waving from balconies while plotting sexual assignations and devious murders behind the scenes. But turning one of the leading female characters into a patois-spouting West Indian may be a bit over-the-top, and the lovely Claire Benedict has to work hard to keep her in the same universe as the others.
The Malcontent remains a curiosity of interest primarily to the student or the collector of rare Renaissance dramas. But the general theatregoer who wanders into the Gielgud Theatre may be surprised by how fast-moving and entertaining this rediscovery is.
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