FringeReview UK 2019
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 Greene’s The Pinner of Wakefield on Sunday June 9th directed by Jenny Eastop continues the Robin Hood Season. The next RND’s theming Poland and Shakespeare with two works on June 30th 2019.
There’s a festive feel this year. This production of Greene’s George A Greene, The Pinner of Wakefield directed by Jenny Eastop continues the Robin Hood Season and we’re getting used to lighter fare. After the very fine Edward I by Peele, four months ago, a true history play, a shorter work invokes a last echo of the Mysteries.
The title refers not just to a hero, but his job, a kind of special constable, impounding stray animals but more, defending his town’s liberty. ‘There is neither knight nor squire…./nor barron that is so bold,/Dare make a trespass to the town of Wakefield,/But his pledge goes to the pinfold.’ That’s telling them.
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.
Combining new low comedy, and dating from 1588/89, The Pinner tells us something about its author Robert Greene too. Something more than his immortalized ‘Upstart crow’ diatribe. A ‘pleasant conceited comedy’ is better remembrance. The elements of ballad too infuse this cross-roads entertainment, and it’s exhilarating to see it enacted with the tang of an earlier age attached.
Even with a 15-minute interval it plays for 90 minutes only, a masque-length work with a relatively high-access language, it interrogates how authority renews itself by a little touch of social cohesion. And like Harry, this Edward I goes in disguise too at one point to work out who this George-a-Greene is, as well as sniff out more traitors.
There’s quite a few of those in a production that’s light on even light props, save on actor who makes painful physical comedy out of surrendering a genuine NHS crutch on command – they’re nursing a real leg cast.
The date’s a bit woozy even for comedy. Is it during the time of Edward I (1272-1307)? Well there’s King James I of Scotland – he writes poetry so it must be No. 1. We know he’s ransomed by Henry V and spends 15 years in the 1420s English court. Cue Rhona Munro’s Trilogy. Oh never mind, the coast of Nottingham’s looming. Names too are even more recent.
Andy Secombe’s treacherous Earl of Kendal is a nice display of wheedling oleaginous speech. He reminds me of a headmaster I once knew. His henchman Bonfield (Michael Watson-Gray, later Edward I), Moronke Akinola’s Sir Gilbert Armstrong and the hapless Sir Nicholas Mannering (Sam Jenkins-Shaw) find their insurrection failing for want of victuals. Wakefield must provide.
That’s more than inhabitants (Edmund Kingsley, Kudzanayi Chiwawa, later a splendid Jenkin the Clown) and George-a-Greene (Theo Ogundipe) will put up with. One of the best scenes of the whole production is how Mannering’s forced to eat his commission’s words: really. At this point it seems criminal no-one thought to provide rice-paper instead of poor Jenkins-Shaw forced to scoop up and tear off bits and munch them. How we all laugh, how Jenkins-Shaw goes on munching.
Another sub-plot concerns James I, Kinglsey again in a curious role: laying siege to Jane-a-Barley (Ayoola Smart, from the gallery) and threatening to kill her son Ned (Anna-King Golding) who stoutly prefers death rather than his mother’s dishonour. The moment’s resolved by rescue, and James’ character is improved out of convention (he jogs along in Edward’s entourage), but it’s a disturbed unresolved moment.
Ogundipe builds his titular part impressively, every commanding inch matched by a strong vocal delivery that makes you wonder what he and later Jenkins-Shaw now Robin Hood might have made of the Globe stage. The whole’s neatly contained though, and Ogundipe has to contend with Sam Cox’s old Musgrove who at 103 still terrifies everyone else. His son Cuddy (Emily Tucker) laments never getting a crack at traitors’ heads without supervision. Cox revels in the apparently enfeebled father with a killer ecci-thump, just as he threatens later as a shoemaker.
Jeremy Booth another regular inhabits the curmudgeon Grime whose daughter Bettris (Natalie Simpson) Greene wishes to marry. The couple elope to much laughter as they declare a ‘conversation’ when in his cottage.
It’s another interesting moment. Bettris is not a young swiving wife or widow which was sexually acceptable in comedy: here she’s a maid who knows her mind. The text doesn’t supply vows of chastity – hence audience whoops. Simpson’s part gives her less scope in this genre; her ‘father’ Booth too. Simpson’s allowed to flourish briefly later on though this isn’t a play where women’s parts can shine.
Benjamin Garrison as Greene’s man Willy garners some of the best laughs as the clever fixer and trickster who has to sashay around his master’s less tricksy nobility. He underlines this play’s obsession of disguise to gain plain truth or virtuous ends; and touches on the world turned upside down convention.
A wafer-thin plot climaxes on the meeting of Greene and Robin Hood, a kind of double-ballad. It’s effected by the silliest of premises. Ayoola Smart’s sullen Maid Marian is jealous of Bettris’s presumed beauty and wants Robin to challenge Greene, which disguised he duly does. Having knocked down Akinola’s Will Scarlet, Golding’s Much the miller’s son – witty slow-motion collapses stud this production – Greene’s prowess lends a hint. Robin calls a truce as the two heroes recognize each other. Greene’s also captured Kendal and his crew. So as Edward I arrives also in disguise, and reveals himself before he’s knocked down, Greene asks they be spared.
As reward Greene asks for Bettris’ hand, a fait accompli, and refuses the knighthood Robin accepts. Greene voices the moral: the virtue of a Yeoman is enhanced by such service, a mere knight’s expected to render it as a matter of course. And finally the shoemakers are allowed to challenge anyone who enters Wakefield carrying pikes over their shoulders – as happens a couple of times throughout the work – usually ending in a mutual stoop of ale. Edward extols old custom and local observance. A kind of shoemaker’s holiday.
It’s a useful parable of social cohesion, a snapshot of how Englishness was rationalizing itself just after the Armada. In a text exuding a literally strong knockabout energy, it receives a fleet, funny and audience-friendly production where some actors are frequently off-page. Ogundipe and Jenkins-Shaw cut commanding figures bristling with energy, and Ogundipe with most to do impresses. Secombe, Cox, Watson-Gray, Kinglsey and several others make quick studies of their characterizing and comic pointing.
The Pinner of Wakefield is never going to make repertoire again, but it’s a vital link to how more ancient community and ballad theatre was recruited into a project of national self-identification. It deserves vivid revival and witness every so often. And we now know more of Greene than crows.