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 Davenant’s The Wits is directed by Martin Hodgson at the Wanamaker on September 30th. The next RND’s On The Road: first Gray’s Inn continuing the Censorship (and Massinger) Season for Massinger’s The Little Lawyer, on Sunday October 28th . Then back to the Wanamaker for Massinger and Fletcher’s The Tragedy of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt on November 18th.
William Davenant’s a stretchy figure whose reputation as a bridge is so thin you hesitate to tread onto it. Except that he invented the word ‘opera’ with his Commonwealth-curving musical entertainments. And here’s a 1633 play famous as the pattern of Restoration comedies nearly thirty years later. A restored stage Davenant is famed for reviving along with Thomas Killigrew.
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.
The Wits from Davenant’s first period is a revelation –theatrically and linguistically. It too encountered censorship, but not the blanket ban on theatres (Cromwell encouraged his operas in fact). Censor Sir Henry Herbert objected to ‘loose’ oaths. Davenant’s magnificently-named patron Endymion Porter got King Charles on side and it was performed in January 1634. Charles praised the language though sadly not the racy plot.
Inspired by Middleton and Rowley’s Wit at Several Weapons (c. 1613), where a disinherited younger brother proves himself a better wit than his overweening elder, The Wits is otherwise a different comedy altogether. Interestingly, Dryden borrowed the same Middleton/Rowley work for his first play too.
Davenant propels women triumphant into the battle of wits. Not just paragons – as in recent Massinger plots – but prosecutors of stratagems superior to the men’s. Beyond that though is an assertion of complete equality carried through. No wonder The Wits was seized on at the Restoration by the first women actors.
This production’s tautly directed by Martin Hodgson at the Wanamaker, with minimal props – mainly John Hopkins’ umpire’s straw hat, swords and some police uniforms (almost a uniform requirement in recent RND). And crucially a large trunk. The cast led by Hopkins as Palatine the Elder are uniformly excellent.
He and his equally northern much older friend – David Whitworth’s Sir Morglay Thwack – are on a bizarre woman-gulling expedition south. Though perfectly landed they’re set on cozenage with wit, to live off their seduced women’s fortunes like gigolos. Pallatine claims younger women and Thwack’s left with widows ‘of forty to fourscore and upwards’. Whitworth projects a clarity of befuddlement in his opera-buffo part.
Hopkins fresh from Vicky Jones’ The One at Soho, is absolutely in his comic grove: a strong-voiced, faintly buffoonish confidence, shaded with a streak of self-analysis, in Davenant’s laid-back litanies. He hints too at a fundamental decency that has to be extracted with hens’ teeth, capable of a handsome gesture. Despite his callous cutting-off, Davenant ensures we don’t condemn him too roundly. Hopkins keys a light-touch.
Younger brothers perennially have to find their way: David Oakes’ sparky Palatine the Younger – cut off without a penny – has already left his elder brother (Hopkins) in the north for London, where he’s lived by his wits in earnest. Oakes counterpoints Hopkins in verbal and physical aplomb, nailing his part with Jonsonian glee.
So we start in London. Pallatine Junior’s on the con too. He’s recruited discharged soldiers Meager (strongly-voiced Sid Sagar) and Pert (Kit Young, excellent in his smaller role); the three enjoy a plottish badinage. This really sparkles, the actors firing off each other as if rehearsing for days, not hours. Phrases like ‘nether pearls’ and others fly by. Best is a an event ‘rare as a whale this side of the Thames’ drawing explosive laughter from an audience recalling the week’s headlines and footage of just that. Great productions chime with the moment.
Pallatine Younger has secured the affections of young Lucy (Laura Soper), named his mistress – though they’re not yet lovers. He’s also secured financial help from Lucy to use as start-up. But she’s thrown out of her home as it’s assumed she has given herself. Soper starts strait-laced and her gradual warming-up suits her performance, at one point popping through the cloth drape over the central stage door – punching the script through underneath.
Her friend Anne-Marie Piazza’s Lady Ample is equally furious – that she’s cash-converted her small supply of jewellery for her admirer. It’s men who give women gold, not the other way round! She’d have preferred it had Lucy yielded the jewel of virginity instead. Piazza rails with a range of skirling laughter and quietly suggested tenderness; blink and you’ll miss it. Nicole Bird’s Ginet, Ample’s serving-woman provides a sharp chorus: we’re rampantly witted in another, now female trio. It’s one of those touches of structural equality the Restoration enjoyed.
It’s this hard-headed womens’ survival as well as men’s that marks this work out. For Ample’s about to be married off by skinflint guardian Sir Tyrant Thrift (grumpy John Gregor) who doesn’t turn up for three acts. Happily Thrift’s servant Engine is onside though, thick with alarums and excursions. Dan Starkey’s vivid cameo – darting everywhere and vocally detailed – is one of the best things in a super-tight cast.
Pallatine Elder and Thwack doing the rounds encounter Ample and make such a farce of wooing (women ‘will not be gull’d’) that Ample and Lucy decide on reverse engineering, rapidly falling in with Palatine Younger and combing ops. They hit on an old house where Ample will apparently entertain Pallatine Elder. He and Thwack begin to fall out over Ample so when the latter baulks, Elder has no hesitation in betraying his doddery friend.
Naturally lights in a deserted house attract the Night watch. Encountering on the way James Askill’s truculent Snore, his noisome wife Nadia Shash and her warring neighbour Rosalind Steele pursue a nest of arrests. Meanwhile Shash and Steele with accusations of each other’s children’s thefts, prove the only way is Eastcheap. It’s a third lively triangle.
Act IV is the most farcical with its great set-piece. With this posse and Thrift separately drawing near, Pallatine’s Elder’s hidden and locked in that trunk, where he’s imprisoned, mercilessly twitted by Ample and his younger brother. Elder’s not done though, and betrays his comrade-in-arms to the arresting trio.
But there’s richer pickings, as Gregor’s Thrift arrives within hours of Ample’s liberty. A one-legged bent ancient is to marry her. Drastic measures then. All Ample can do is feign dying in a black lace mantissa – which she’s tried on with Pallatine the Elder already. Thrift’s in fact eager to have her die before midnight so he can claim her inheritance and Gregor relishes dispatch; it’s genuinely nasty. A fortune’s apparently stowed in her tomb so Thrift tries crowbarring into that trunk (masquerading as tomb).
Denouements are swift. Whilst Lucy and Pallatine the younger seem well-paired – Soper’s and Oakes’ warmth depicting long attraction – Hopkins and Piazza as Ample and Elder have to work throughout the comedy to show grudging desire. Luckily Davenant gives Hopkins lines to prove Elder’s humility and well as magnanimity, admitting everything including Ample’s superior wit: Piazza calls all shots, even blindfold-signing sealed envelopes. Reformed, Elder would’ve signed anyway. Hopkins makes us believe him.
Exhilarating and fresh, this is a comedy showing just how singular Davenant is, deserving full-scale revival. Stuffed with fleet metaphors and Jonsonian detail, it’s significantly different in tone from other 1630s comedies: adroitly charactered, farcically-well plotted and prophetically gendered. Though quite short for the period, just over two-and-a-half hours with interval, it’s wordy, a touch delighted with itself in fizzing similes. That might show or not in a full production, where such elements might be pointed up. But you’d go far to find as spirited and sure-footed a cast as this.