FringeReview UK 2018
Read Not Dead ground rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts and then assemble on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. This production of Fletcher and Massinger’s The Little French Lawyer was mounted in the second RND On the Road event at the annual Gray’s Inn performance, Great Hall, Holborn, on Sunday October 28th. The next RND’s concluding the Censorship (and Massinger) Season is back to the Wanamaker for Massinger and Fletcher’s The Tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt on November 18th.
Where else to stage a play involving lawyers than the Great Hall at Gray’s Inn, and rope in a few eminent practitioners? The Globe Education Read Not Dead returns for its annual October event with a play apposite to these chambers. Well, in theory.
John Fletcher’s and Philip Massinger’s The Little French Lawyer dates from that gout of their collaboration around 1619. Despite the title the lawyer’s a subplot, and the theme – unwonted alacrity in dueling – underpins an ostensible, rather itchy plot.
So Globe Education’s Read Not Dead Censorship Season continues with 2018’s sell-out performances. As RND suggests to those new to it, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are reanimated for a day. RND by 2033 will have put on all extant plays between 1567 and 1642, including Hamlet.
2018’s theme though focuses on those plays snarled and snagged by censorship. Some like this one escaped after a few tweaks: finally published in 1647 the proto-Republican Massinger’s name was omitted, hence his disappearance as a Fletcher collaborator. Two plays at least this year survived by fluke in manuscript, performed only after sometimes substantial rewriting and not even published till the 19th century.
Nick Hutchison helms this problem play, replete with air swords (it’s not the Wannamaker, Globe Education Director Patrick Spottiswoode warns, us, there’s more anxious heath and safety). Though props are absent, the resonant panelled chamber with its balcony and multiple doors got a work-out with audience on three sides.
Massinger’s perhaps the problem, not in the quality of his writing but the way he frames the plot and pitches the tone – particularly his lion’s share of Acts I and V. In a word a kind of misogyny only partly redeemed; it leaves as Stephen Watkins introducing the play suggests, a nasty taste.
It’s set in France, where duelling was rife, as in part of a warning against British emulation. Ben Jonson after all only escaped hanging in 1598 pleading benefit of clergy after killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. Twenty years on, it was concerning James I too.
Philip Bird’s commanding Dinant is in love with Eliza Butterworth’s Lamira, but she’s demurely thrown him over at her father Vertaign’s behest, to marry an honourably war-crippled and elderly Champernell. He’s lame in or wholly missing an arm and a leg. It’s a part taken with aplomb and an NHS crutch by Sir Michael Burton.
Thus Dinant accosts the wedding procession with ‘strange rudeness’ alongside his friend Cleremont (the energetic Doug Rao). Dinant accuses Roger Eastman’s avuncular Vertaign as: ‘The Father of this Bride, whom you have sent/Alive into her grave.’ He has a point since Vertaign approved Dinant and yet matches her in some caprice of fortune-hunting to instead of aiming:
At what her youth, and heat of blood requir’d
In lawful pleasures, than the parting from
Your Crowns to pay her dower. (I : I)
There’s a running gags about what costs arms and legs and ‘that other part’ Dinant doubts will satisfy the young Lamira. In her responses you feel Lamira’s not wholly happy either, but resolute at lest in obeidence. Dinant’s sure she’s tortured, one:
….to whom nature
Gave with a liberal hand most excellent form,
Your education, language and discourse,
And judgement to distinguish… (I : I)
Even through antique over-punctuated editing you see Dinant’s measuring isn’t wholly physical, though certainly sexually driven. Butterworth’s Lamira is indeed a model of spirited restraint, upbraiding her husband for bursting into tears when vainly attempting to fight Dinant.
Her character leaps more into life when plotting in Act III and suffering in Act IV, but by then she has a foil: Rosalind Lailey’s spirited Anabell, niece to Champernell and both defiant and sexually forward. And her own serving women Charlotte Newton-John’s Charlotte and Emily Houghton’s Old Lady (aka Nurse) who discreetly pursue sexual gratification. It enlivens the paly and makes this section in particular attractive and performable.
It’s not just lower orders who can quench natural appetites (with two hired ‘kidnappers’) but a high-born niece who puts herself in the way of an immediate husband in Cleremont, frankly and with touching honesty. Lailey embraces this and it’s great fun. These are as it were Fletcher’s women though Massinger has a hand in the middle acts too. But the agency and sexual autonomy of say Fletcher’s The Coxcomb of 1609 peeps out and you wish Lamira could be touched with it.
But then Dinant should be more patient than here. Its not quite that kind of play either. Champernell though crippled – and somewhat roughly pilloried by Massinger too – is an admiral to respect. Degree even in comedies is paramount in Jacobean drama, even if you feel Massinger doesn’t wholly believe in him. Lamira admonishes him, his nephew Verdone (Gillian Geddes) and her brother Beaupre (Sandra Vilani) for shedding tears: ‘this is unmanly gentlemen’.
You’ll wonder where the little lawyer comes in: Act II. Lamira’s plots begin after the impetuous but untried Verdone and Beaupre feel they have to challenge Dinant and the more circumspect Cleremont. Using subterfuge she catches Dinant alone and convinces him there’s another slanderer of hers out there and sends him off thus inadvertently avoiding the double duel with the other three till it’s all over.
Left two to one Cleremont frantically importunes an attorney. Patrick Osborne’s very engaging – and now engaged – Monsieur Le Writ. This is sparkling. Le Writ havers, sawing restraint with outright unfitness, but Cleremont must have a second. This scene features some of the liveliest dialogue too, Le Writ edging backwards into a swordfight – then dispatching himself so well he disarms both young men when Cleremont’s himself in trouble. A fluke? Both are convinced Le Writ’s a natural. The boys slink home, Le Writ declares he’s for fighting not law. He then issues a challenge to Vertaign who’s a judge, defused only by Cleremont’s making it seem a joke in his conveyance.
This builds up Cleremont, for virtuous reward. Colin Manning’s ‘foolish Advocate and kinsman to Vertain’ makes his appearance as second to Le Writ. The two are disarmed by Cleremont and Dinant running off with their doublets and swords; the little lawyers beat each other amicably to stay warm.
Josie Teale’s small part of Provost appears more frequently, particularly when the Little Lawyer – much later – encounters Vertaign and Champernell. His swash is well and truly buckled with a disarming, thrashing to broken teeth; and promise to return to law. It’s a rumbustious moral – fitted like a glass slipper on an ugly sister; but it’s over soon.
It’s the sour love-plotting that really takes off now. Dinant gets a come-uppance in Act III when she pretends to yield yet laugh loudly to prevent any such thing. Meanwhile Cleremont’s been dispatched to ‘li with Champernell’s pretending to be Lamira at least in the dark and lie – clearly untouched. In fact it’s more preposterous. Cleremont’s sent in truth by Lamira to lie with her niece-in-law sixteen-year-old Anabell, though neither know of the other exactly.
So we farce from risible bed-tricks to Freudian sublimation. Though the pair don’t recognize each other till full daylight they look ready to rip each other’s clothes off. Sixteen wasn’t precocious then; think Juliet’s thirteen. Cleremont’s older of course; the custom of the 17th century country. They do things differently there. But there’s nothing disagreeable. Like The Country Wife Anabell is ‘unspoiled’ thus frank in her desires. With the plot revealed it’s this couple rather than disgruntled Dinant we turn to.
Act IV sees revenge. The whole party’s captured by Jay Varsani and William Foote multi-roling ably as servants, gentlemen and clients, but acting under Dinant. Thus when the two young women with the two servants are captured there’s different sexual responses. The men are led off, Dinant and Cleremont pretending to be bound up too. It’s here the work’s disagreeables reside
Lailey’s spirited response, to fight, even willingly submit is a far more active agency counterpointing Lamira’s pathos. It’s a curious reversal of pragmatisms since Anabell’s still a virgin – this being of course a vital distinction. Lamira whatever her state is married. Anabell’s not wholly consistent but there’s a spark throughout and an affecting scene when all’s revealed with Cleremont.
It makes Act IV a more palatable, spirited comedy, as well as the adventures of Charlotte and Nurse. Lamira’s darkness though has to be negotiated; it’s tricky if potentially rewarding. Butterworth has the measure of her dignity, her witty chiding and plotting, and her terror.
A spirited cast, and pacey reading ensure the briefest traversal – two-and-a-half hours with interval, of recent RNDs. Revelations, graceful apologies with abjurings, not to mention another impending marriage, makes enemies friends, Champernell concludes. It’s a way of our making friends with this troubling, deeply fascinating, vitally sour play.