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 The Dutch Lady was directed by Jason Morell. The next RND is on November 17th at the Wanamaker, Anthony Munday’s The Death of the Earl of Huntingdon. It’s the last till next year.
So here’s a magnificent imposture. And it’s recently got better. Where would you place a play from the Interregnum when Read Not Dead stops at 1642? Well it’s not much later. The Dutch Lady is a play set squarely around 1651, alluding to texts and the Protector. Now fresh research and overwhelmingly seeing it performed places it close to its first notice in 1675. About 1670-72. Oh and it’s partly set where it’s performed – Gray’s Inn Hall. RND’s on the road.
As RND suggests to those new to it, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline playtexts 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. And I suspect some Interregnum pieces by e.g. James Shirley might just get a peep after The Dutch Lady. Ground rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts then assemble on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact (usually) at four p.m.
This production of The Dutch Lady was directed by Jason Morell, with James Wallace assisting on text. You’d expect with this team the Hall would be alive and it is. The balcony’s used, the chorus is broken up and asides, Restoration conventions and more importantly the flavour of this singular play is brought vividly across. Several of the chorus cheerily point out ‘you’ll be seeing us later’.
The eponymous heroine is young widow Fuscara (Rebecca Johnson), far more penniless than she seems. It’s the buzz of men around that provides the main plot. As we open after a witty prologue spoken by each cast member, sometimes in unison we’re introduced to one Amner from the balcony. Matt Gavan’s small role is taken with alacrity and strong voice: it’s a pity we don’t see more of him. We see even less of Soraya Pascoe’s Boy, a neat flustering-errands part.
His master Justinian Aimwell enjoys a Restoration surname but his Christian one drags him back to virtuous sobriety. Ralph Davis’ portrayal is sovereign. You can see him think. His voice darkens on introspection with occluded self-doubt; it’s blown away by a ringing delivery when called for, which is much of the time. Davis and Gavan’s exchanges set the tone for a quality that never flags despite a mix of professionals and lawyers recruited from the host Inn.
They’re swiftly joined by a contrasting pair to hatch plots. These are the wordy Bezar, played with a cormorant-devouring love of words by Michael Matus; and Tom Kanji’s initially quieter Jolly. It’s ultimately Jolly who proves the keen plotter, and with a legal steel-trap voice projects some of the denouement. As it is, they perform a cackling double-act as if released from the Drones Club at 3am.
As Amner relates, Aimwell’s being importuned to come to the aid of one Rev. Truman whom we never see. Truman’s a Royalist rector thrown off his estate during the Commonwealth. By the man who’s done it, Ryan Early’s Dispensation Surfeit is as you’d expect, a Jonsonian Puritan hypocrite. The law allows Truman a fifth of his original stipend for subsistence, but Surfeit’s thrown Truman in prison on trumped-up charges till he surrenders even their starvation funds. His wife played by Sadie Shimmin importunes.
Amner’s just counted out the last 15 guineas Aimwell has left for charitable purposes. They spend it on engaging a threadbare mean but ears-to-the-ground lawyer Francis Withernam, Colin Manning depicting the ‘young’ lawyer with alacrity. Motivated by money only, he’s a miniature of corrupted law.
But there’s sympathy for his souring. Since Withernam too has a backstory that intertwines with the main plot. He’s been cheated of his mortgage by uncle Sir Ralph Beetle (Roger Easterman, an ideal bufferish portrayal) and reduced to grubbing law for subsistence. More of him later too.
As RND’s tally proves, penury inheritance and restitution underscore Jacobean and particularly Caroline obsessions. These really took off though from Restoration plays down to Sheridan as capital and social mobility grew even more fluid.
Money and law dominate this work. What’s wondrous is the believable characters, the intricacy and sheer cleverness of the plot. This Anon certainly lived through 1651.
Enter the eponymous Dutch Lady who’s helpfully been thoroughly Anglicised. Rebecca Johnson’s Fuscara bouncing off Eliza Butterworth’s soubrette role of maid Violetta (energetic, voluble, quickfire), is by turns quick and coy, conscience-struck and determined, minxy and abashed, even appalled. Johnson portrays this with a sobriety and plainness when dealing with Aimwell, the man who’s she’s met at dinner and wants to know better. Unlike Hotlove, Martins Imhangbe’s excellent lusty and choleric would-be-lover. Imhangbe elicits sympathy till Hotlove finally, conveniently flips.
Aimwell has no ulterior motive though there’s clearly an instant attraction between him and Fuscara. Hotlove by contrast is unworthily prepared to marry the penurious Fuscara off to that very Sir Ralph Beetle, known as an impotent ‘four-score-man’ who’s persuaded of her wealth. And then Hotlove and she can enjoy the proper union. Fuscara accepts the bargain. Very Changeling or Women Beware Women. But Fuscara had told Hotlove she couldn’t accept a penurious lover. Would she have declared that to Aimwell? No easy answer.
Johnson has to appear both resolute but sympathetic in such duplicity that in Middleton would see her damned; unless it prove a dea ex machina comedy. There is and there isn’t. Johnson projects an innate dignity, a survivor who has to use her beauty and wit to avoid starving.
Fuscara tells Aimwell everything. This is a sober departure from any tragic note. If Aimwell accepts her lifestyle and motives, there’s an honest bond that might deepen. Which happens offstage; we never plumb it all.
It prophesies Millamant and Mirabel’s onstage conditions for marriage in Act Four of The Way of the World. Honest proceeding and legality became more a lingua franca in the 1690s. The Dutch Lady is far from The Dutch Courtesan despite similar aspersions: but this comedy’s richness flings itself back and remarkably forward to William Congreve. The hero’s name too suggests George Farquhar must have taken the name Aimwell from this play as late as 1707 for The Beaux Stratagem. Indeed the end of The Dutch Lady foreshadows the resolving triangle of Farquhar’s Sullen, Kate Sullen and Archer.
The Gray’s Inn gardens are the appointed ‘accidental’ sighting of Fuscara by Beetle, a few yards off where the play’s performed. Again one thinks of that first glimpse of Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling. If Anon’s borrowing a relatively well-known trope he’s also winking. It’s even more a Restoration one, for the dominant mode of comedy. Vauxhall Gardens beckon.
Bezar and Jolly are recruited to persuade Beetle of Fuscara’s worth when the ancient lover comes calling, pretending this and that credit note, with Aimwell as a counselor adding his questions. Satisfied – save Beetle’s suspicion of Aimwell – the bond’s struck.
The subplot’s moved forward in nasty way, Shimmin’s Mrs Truman bamboozles her way past Love-The-Saints to a audience with Surfeit, only to be shown a vicious glee. Early’s impressive in wheedling and venom, with a true instinct for the oleaginous. Shimmin conjures dignity to curse.
Surfeit’s more interested in bedding ward Nicole Bird’s pert, clever but vulnerable Love-The-Saints. Then why not him Surfeit asks, chasing her about like Harvey Weinstein. The denouement to harassment is curiously abrupt: young Love-The-Saints ultimately seems to throw in her lot with Surfeit, and Morell’s added a sudden dance of gleeful plotting between the two to cover the join.
The Dutch Lady again is that rarity: a history play of twenty years since. Again, venality and greed are automatically laid to the door of Puritans, both by Jonson and latterly in Restoration ballads. This is one of the few times such a character is portrayed on the Restoration stage, itself absorbed by the contemporary, when Puritans were now jailed, exiled or – until the late 1690s – very quiet.
The fourth act’s uproarious drunk scene after the wedding party arrive is a set-piece in no way upstaged by the real shattering of a green bottle during proceedings that set a dozen placed at intervals. Simon Butteriss’ landlord Captain Stum is an uproarious portrayal of a landlord trying to sugar up bad wine to rare vintages abetted by liveried Gillian Geddes’ Turnsol and Sandra Villani’s Drawer. They all relish this trio before the party like a dnace-off.
The entire cast, echoing the prologue, sit and toast then fall to plots in their cups. Surfeit overreaches his drink, leaving vital documents behind whilst rushing off to retch. Aimwell proves his name, lifting various papers proving amongst other things that Surfeit’s a Machiavel, his posturing conned from nasty books. And… he’s anti-Royalist too extolling regicide – though since 1651 is the year Charles II was stuck up a tree near Worcester, any gasps from a wedding party would have been decidedly muted. It’s for a 1671 audience, not 1651 characters.
Most of all Truman’s innocent. Aimwell springs his trap, then Withernam proves Fuscara’s penniless. We move to Beetle’s then Aimwell’s lodgings, Withernam later springs two traps of his own, armed with knowledge of the Dutch Lady’s prior marriage. As there’s been no consummation Beetle is free. Withernam’s fee is his mortgage back. However Jolly has other revelations to upend this new release. A certain amity’s restored. But the epilogue …
There’s enough attraction between Fuscara and Aimwell to make us wonder if after all they might unite after Beetle’s death. It’s the resolution echoed differently in The Beaux Stratagem and again there’s no clear hint. Fuscara hadn’t mentioned her husband was living, though bigamous, and it’s not clear she knew he was. How does Aimwell process that after his initial and very real shock? It’s a work where though legal niceties are observed, human ones are left very much in question.
A consummate production of a memorably dark comedy. There’s little that creaks, much more that’s darkly bright; and above all a central character whose deceit even with Aimwell elicits sympathy, not tragic judgement. It’s the finest I’ve witnessed at this venue, easily one of the best RNDs in a strong year.