By Thomas Dekker Directed by Phillip Breen Presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre on 28 February 2015
Rowland Lacy loves Rose Oatley but it’s not going to work out. An aristocrat and a middle class girl aren’t supposed to marry, not least because Rowland is a very bad boy and her parents really don’t approve.
When his father sends him to war to reform his ways, Rowland must take drastic action to avoid any chance of unnecessary personal injury and secretly pursue his love. He goes from riches to rags. Losing himself among the craftsmen of London he assumes the guise of a Dutch shoemaker (he learnt Dutch on his gap year of course) at the shop of the larger-than-life Simon Eyre and his wife Margery who are decidedly on their way from rags to riches.
There is no stained glass in the large rose window above the stage, since Rose Oatley, although the daughter of the Lord Mayor of London, is too low born to marry Rowland Lacy. Their roundabout route to nuptial bliss provides the plot of this highly enjoyable caper, which hangs together with only a couple of blemishes and awkward plot moves (that Lacy’s desertion from the army doesn’t earn him a death sentence or at least entirely ruin his reputation is implausible). The design evokes a medieval guildhall, with gargoyles poking their faces out from sturdy oak beams (are they portraits of RSC staff?), and cold flagstones for a floor. Bells ring, and the cast enters to sketch out the story and promise us entertainment:
It is nought but mirth that keeps body from earth.
Lacy is already planning his own desertion for the purpose of pursuing Rose, but he shows no fellow feeling for the newly married Ralph. Jane is distraught over losing her husband, and he’s not best pleased either at the thought of another man stepping into his shoes, or taking his place in the marriage bed. Jane, it turns out, does not cuckold him, despite being tempted by the rogue Hammon and his money, and only considers remarriage when she hears a false report of his death in France.
Sybil is Rose’s maid — witty, resourceful, energetic and indispensable. She provides an antidote to her mistress’s lovesickness, and agrees that Lacy is mild — “as a bushel of stamped crabs.” Sybil is Rose’s maid — witty, resourceful, energetic and indispensable. She provides an antidote to her mistress’s lovesickness, and agrees that Lacy is mild — “as a bushel of stamped crabs.” For the hunting scene, she runs around the stage holding up a couple of antlers on her head and blood streaked on her neck. The antlers, rags of flesh still hanging from them, have been freshly ripped from a stag. She’s loving both kinds of sport — the hunting of deer and the mating game her mistress is playing:
Impale me and then I will not stray.
A woman may have many suitors to choose from, and she must convince any man intending to invest in their offspring believe that she will not switch affection once she’s chosen him.
Lacy is now Hans, a working shoemaker who enters Eyre’s shop and tries to be one of the lads. He can’t quite hide his gentlemanly origins, sipping his flagon of beer with his little finger extended, rather than chugging it down in one. Josh O’Connor does a very good comically bad Dutch accent, which either decays into a guttural clucking like a chicken being slightly strangled or else he pauses and then gives up, pronouncing the word in his own English accent.
David Troughton is outstanding as Simon Eyre, a working man who aspires to high office but who doesn’t forget his origins or his former workers and “the gentle craft” that made his fortune, or allow his ambition to give him (too many) airs and graces. That said, he does enjoy pulling on a fine cloak and cassock, which make him “as proud as a dog in a doublet.” His wife, too, enjoys her elevation, but has more trouble remaining grounded as she floats about in her new finery (she could double as Queen Elizabeth I in those royal portraits). Her farthingale is a fashion where the correct answer to “Does my bum look big in this?” is a resounding “Yes!” It gives her an extension upon which could be balanced a whole cocktail cabinet, not the single glass made famous recently by one of the Kardashians.
Vivien Parry gives Margery Eyre the mayor’s wife a higher register than when she was merely wife to a shoemaker, an affectation that convinces precisely no one of her sophistication. She may be trying to speak posh, but she has retained her catchphrase — “but let it pass” — that serves as a period to almost every utterance. Her husband’s is a nobler claim — “Prince am I none, yet am princely born” — that he trots out even in the presence of the king, without reprimand.
Like Polonius, the previous mayor, Sir Roger Oatley has qualms about his daughter marrying above herself. Before she learns of Lucy’s new position, she has to fend off other predatory men who have her father’s approval if not hers. in the case of Hammon, she makes her dislike of him very clear:
She is not being coy, since she has no intention of ever marrying him, but her father mistakes her mind:
Curse thy coyness.
She will later say that her love for Lucy has given her the strength to bear her father’s hate.
Hammon, meanwhile, moves on to what should be, for a man of his wealth and status, easier pickings, but he also underestimates Jane’s resolution. He interprets her resistance as “come to me when she says go away.” In the programme, Carol Chillington Rutter describes this as “the misogynist’s dictum” but this is too blanket a claim. Sometimes, of course, a man does mistake a “no” for a “yes” (or, in the case of rape, ignore the “no”) but Ruttter is ruling out legitimate mating strategies in which the female tests the commitment of the male by making him wait for sexual access. She means “not yet” when she says “not now” — if the male is still interested after being denied immediate access, then she can be more confident that he is after a long- rather than a short-term relationship. That said, Hammon is a ham-fisted suitor with zero sensitivity and would be unlikely to get the girl even in the most propitious of circumstances. We delight in his ultimate comeuppance at the hands of Jane and the shoemakers. Hodge tells him:
He who sows in another man’s field forfeits his harvest.
So she gets to keep the fine new dress she was to be married in.
Lacy and Rose are finally brought together, with salacious commentary from Firk:
Can you dance the shaking of the sheets?
He foils the attempt of her father to interrupt the marriage ceremony, and he admits:
I never go to church.
At a time when there were penalties for absence and when piety was a widespread social norm, this aspect places him even further outside of “decent” society — and yet he is clearly a good man in many respects.
Simon Eyre approves the match, and so we have at least one figure of authority — a lord mayor in a gold chain no less — looking benignly on young love. He sums up the order of the day with typical concision and precision:
Wed and to bed!
Unlike in Shakespeare’s history plays, where kings are integral from the first scene, the king’s appearance towards the end of the play seems grafted on. To the republican in all of us, giving the king a walk-on part is satisfying, and dramatically he serves to resolve, at least superficially, the awkward matter of Rose having married above her station, and to a traitor. He pronounces:
Love respects no blood.
This sentiment, of course, runs dead against every single royal family’s overweening respect for blood in their matchmaking. He asks:
Are you pleased, Lincoln?
Lacy’s father has to say “yes” when he means “no” and the king suggests:
Where there is much love, all discord ends.
If that were the case, and if Christianity were really a religion of love, then there would be no schism and no sects, to say nothing of the wars that would be fought between Christian nations.
He names the new hall built by the mayor “Leadenhall” and Simon Eyre makes good on his promise to feast the apprentices. TJ. The good feeling doesn’t last long as the king promises to get back to making war on the French, which will mean more of his subjects dying and coming home maimed.
Cast: Ben Allen, Askew; Ross Armstrong, Warner; Daniel Boyd, Ralph Damport; Vincent Carmichael, Earl of Lincoln; Laura Cubitt, Seamstress; Hedydd Dylan, Jane Damport; Sandy Foster, Sybil; William Gaminara, Sir Roger Oatley; Michael Grady-Hall, Lovell; Jack Holden, Skipper/The King; Andrew Langtree, Dodger; Joel MacCormack, Firk; Tom McCall, Hodge; Josh O’Connor, Rowland Lacy; Vivien Parry, Margery Eyre; Thomasin Rand, Rose Oatley; David Troughton, Simon Eyre; Jamie Wilkes, Hammon