Caroline Quentin as Lady Sarah and Neil d'Souza as the Puritan Peregrine Pelham take advantage of the vast Inigo Jones' bed. Picture: Duncan Lomax
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
This is a corker of a show from the RSC. Three laughs a minute. The audience was in paroxysms of laughter. I giggled till my sides split.
Most joyous of all is the fact that in Richard Bean’s side-splitting new play The Hypocrite, directed here with an abundance of wit, stagecraft and brilliance by Phillip Breen, the text captures the whole flavour of Jacobean theatre (Johnson’s Volpone and The Devil is an Ass for instance; even the title suggests English 17th century or the French comedy idiom of Molière).
With a strange flavour of iambics that is felt even in lines which are not verse at all, the play constantly captures and echoes the period it is set in (the first half of the 1600s). Almost all the jokes could have flowed from the pen of (say) Middleton or Massinger; there are even Shakespearian resonances. That is partly why it is such a sensational, believably realistic, chaotic spree.
Hull-born Bean’s text is (as he describes it) a ‘farce’ (its one-liners often an easy match for Morecambe and Wise, or Blackadder): a comic masterpiece with a tragic tinge: at the beginning and end the central character, Sir John Hotham, the governor of Hull and trapped between the Cavaliers and Roundheads in the first major encounter opening the Civil War (April 1642), loses his head (and his eldest son) to the axeman.
Sir John Hotham's talking severed head launches the play. Picture: Pete le May
It’s a gem of a production. Breen presents the whole action as a glorious feast of mayhem, allowing characters of mixed political allegiance to dance around, needle and perplex the hapless, shambolic lead as Sir John dithers over whether to stick to Cromwell and Fairfax’s Puritan parliamentarians or raise the flag of the King (and Queen), don Royalist colours and allow the crown’s forces to raid the arsenal, Hull being the home of a vast cache of arms which might determine the impending war’s outcome.
In ‘a world turned upside down’ Hotham is surrounded by an impetuous and sarcastic wife, a zany officer son and another who is a bookish lawyer, a totally deranged, crazy, man-chasing daughter, a prospective son-in-law who looks straight off the Mayflower, plus a host of other enemies or adherents who render his life a nightmare as he wavers with indecision.
Hotham (Mark Addy, a newcomer to the RSC and surely a perfect, Falstaff - Breen has already directed that other Sir John in the RSC’s Merry Wives of Windsor and assisted on The Comedy of Errors) is a glorious creation: brazen, rumbustious, intolerant of cant and rich in sarcasm and irony, who tries vainly to rule the roost in an impossible household, and whose first appearance (a bizarre talking severed head protruding from an enclosing chest or commode; shortly after, a barrowload bubbling with executed heads gets wheeled across) betokens the kind of course Bean’s utterly hilarious text is about to take.
Sir John – Addy is as perfect and finely timed a comic actor as the great Desmond Barrit, the RSC’s erstwhile lead, is at constant odds with his family: above all, his wife, Lady Sarah (a numbingly, teasingly, impeccably funny performance by Caroline Quentin), who characterises the capital as ‘a terrible place, unlike our cultured Hull’, gloats over his decapitated body at the outset and enjoys nothing more than a battle royal with her husband.
Caroline Quentin's Lady Sarah and Mark Addy's Sir John (Pete le May)
This is a co-production with Hull Truck Theatre, and it’s no surprise to find (a) that Addy figured in Barrie Rutter’s famously outrageous Northern Broadsides’ production The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, (b) that Rutter met his former wife while playing at the RSC and (c) that Hull Truck’s creative producer here is Rowan Rutter, the Hull-born actor’s second daughter, only just turning 30. Meanwhile, Addy’s Hotham comes out with some corker insults (‘You witless sphincter-shaker’, ‘damn petulant savage’, ‘over-bosomed’, ‘acrimonious scrotum’, ‘find some women’s work, wash a pony or shave your back’, none of which fazes his wife. It’s all water off a duck’s back.
Another who wearies Hotham (‘that sliver of quivering whimsy’) is his flighty, dreamy, wide-eyed (and wide-mouthed), give-or-take teenage daughter Frances, whom actress Sarah Middleton and director Breen present as a dotty, adoring, lovelorn filly.
Her entries – most of them – consist of her galloping across the stage, dress uplifted (all designer Max Jones’s costumes were wonderful, incidentally, of the period and not saggy, as what passes for Jacobean dress can look, but perfect fits), often appearing at incongruous moments, skidding frenetically from entry to diagonal exit, or across the Romeo and Juliet-like balcony, like a distempered bumble-bee, as often as not emitting a killingly funny high-pitched screech worthy of Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth I in full flow.
She is, it seems, not just aghast and gullible but utterly loopy and deranged – and her bizarre antics fit to perfection and vastly enhance the craziness of Breen’s overall staging. When she rolled straight off the stage into the laps of the audience, the quivering Frances induced one of the biggest laughs of all. She is an absolute hoot.
Sarah Middleton as Frances Hotham,the deranged and dotty daughter (Duncan Lomax)
So are the two new princely objects of her affection: The Duke of York (Jordan Metcalfe) - the future King James II (actually he was only nine at the time), and his elder cousin (Charles I’s nephew), Prince Rupert of the Rhine (Rowan Polonski).Their costumes are jokey from the outset - the amorous James being equipped with both ludicrous wig and a classic pink Royalist costume; Rupert looking as if he should be cross-gartered. By their later entries – being Royalist enemies they need to conceal themselves in Hull – they have adopted female costume (as fish stall vendors), and much fun is had from this pretence, from Rupert’s mock-German accent (somewhere between ‘Allo ’Allo and Prince Albert) and the fact that he, disingenuously feminine with a prominent moustache and beard, is over a head taller than his namby-pamby cousin.
These two oddballs flounce around the stage adopting sundry ridiculous, poncy poses, supplying a delicious cross-dressing sub-plot that is all about flirtation and nothing to do with the imminent Civil War, Rupert displaying a lot of nous (a creative swordsman if not quite yet the cavalry hero he would become), and James presented as a high-pitched nitwit.
There are jokes, innuendi and double-entendres every time they are onstage and freakishly wooing or wackily wooed, and their scenes are riddled with laughs whenever they make their next dotty appearance. The Swan Theatre audience was besotted; the guffaws grew louder and louder.
Increasingly curious, too, is the Hothams’ younger son, Durand (Pierro Niel-Mee), who provides amusement early on as the bookish solicitor-cum-advocate, his father’s usually ignored adviser (‘Does she need legal advice?’ ‘No, she needs something more enjoyable and less expensive’ - another Jacobean/Restoration comedy sneer); but who latterly – after jibes at his lack of a female partner - gets caught up in the marital pursuits.
He has little hope, kitting himself out in a weird costume - a cross between a yellow duckling and a Roman soldier - and perplexing his chosen dragged-up prince with ‘I will keep the fish – as a bookmark’. In short, this mallard has no chance of mating, and his ineptitude is another fine layer to keep the comedy flowing - or rather, racing - along.
Even minor roles are given enough lines to make them memorable. Thus Hothams’ elder son, a mindless militarist played by Asif Khan, who adopts an insane stance which becomes his Leitmotif, and is in favour of lashing out with his sword at anything that passes. His plum line, late on, is (I think) ‘Father, why are you wearing a commode?’ Or Josh Sneesby’s ‘Ranter’, who has amorous intentions soon directed at Lady Sarah, who in turn is pleased to oblige. Then there is Martin Barrass as the unsuccessfully bossy, oath-uttering mayor (‘I’m the f’cking Lord Mayor!’…and to the Duke in pink ’I wouldn’t wear that in f’cking Hull.’) And Neil D’Souza, splendidly stiff and starchy as the dreadful, staring-eyed, black-attired Puritan, Peregrine Pelham, whom the hapless daughter is destined, for her sins, to marry.
Arguably most memorable of the team, Adrian Hood as Captain Moyer, a bit thick but strong in the line of duty, who seems about 6 foot 6 inches high (he dwarfs even Hotham), a feature used hilariously at the outset where he plays Sir John’s Executioner. His voice is like a kind of Yorkshire cockney, a roughed-up regional accent that could be anything from Derby to Northallerton: the character is a bit like Bernard Bresslaw merged with P.C.Fancy Smith (Brian Blessed in Z Cars); and he adds deliciously to the general vagueness and shambles.
Rowan Polonski as Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Martin Barrass as Mayor Barnard (Duncan Lomax)
There was another scintillating performance in this staging. That was Ben Goffe, often seen amid the ensemble, sometimes spear-carrying, but serving up two terrific solo turns: the first as a Ghost, of a girl who at some stage has broken a precious vase, and who entrusts its pair to the protection of the wrinkled retainer (Danielle Bird). But even more splendid is his arrival, on full horseback – one of the show’s many splendid properties – as Charles I in full blue and gold royalist regalia. Goffe’s roles, partly silent, include some speech.
He has a super, expressive voice, utterly commanding, and appealing too. He also has a nicely intelligent and instinctive feel for comedy. It’s no surprise he has a pair of RSC credits already (including A Midsummer Night’s Dream); but his experience spans a wide range of theatre and TV appearances. If they were as ingenious and stylish as this one, they will have been worth watching.
What of the girls? The outstanding one, apart from Quentin’s Sarah, allotted the best below-stairs part and making a triumph of it, was Danielle Bird as the disastrous manservant, Drudge (the name, again pure Jacobean/Restoration). It took a third of the play for me to sense that his sensational hapless, put-upon, grey-bearded, teeth-grinding, hobbling, silently grumbling drudge – the name is perfect – was being played by a woman. Not only is drudge a disaster at everything he essays, he is also astonishingly athletic, whether it is an unpredictable acrobatic stunt (coordinator: Annie Lees-Jones) like climbing up ropes to the upper gallery, hanging pathetically on a peg, scuttling hither and thither (and a meticulous observer of all), or being unceremoniously chucked down in a bottomless chest or coffer direct into below-stage. Sometimes he plods like a snail; at other, hurtles about like an disturbed rat. It is a brilliantly engineered performance: with flailing arms and ropy legs, everything about it is ingeniously hectic, chaotic and mind-blowingly funny.
But the other girls (actually females) mattered, too: Danielle Henry pairing a savvy English whore and French lady attendant upon Henrietta Maria and also the wife of the Royalist Earl Digby produced a series of natty vignettes, her perceptive, varied courtesan being especially alluring but her ‘French’ accent being enticing as well. Another noticeable was Rachel Dale, who played a kind of postman/messenger with a series of witty stances (as if to say, I’m a girl posing as a boy; compare the similar part of ‘Bob’ in the Tudor-era Blackadder). A pity she – indeed both - didn’t have more to say and do.
And by no means last, the feisty serving girl, Connie (Laura Elsworthy), a delightful northern lass who is not just Hotham’s servant, but his confidante and adviser too. Elsworthy starts and ends the play skilfully, makes an impression each time she saunters onto stage, and seems quite unfazed on receiving Sir John’s sharp asides (‘To be common as muck like you must be awful’), mocking her lowly station.
Laura Elsworthy as Connie (Duncan Lomax)
Max Jones’s set and – presumably - costumes (Costume Supervisor: Sian Thomas) were, as implied above, pure delight, but also his props, among which one should include the ‘Inigo Jones bed’, purportedly designed by the famed Jacobean architect, much talked about and finally rolled out, together with its matching pair of golden (or either way, brazen) priapic devices, to much amusement. But the two chests (one a commode in which Sir John unwisely conceals himself), a broken piece of pottery which Drudge clings on to like a possessive Chelsea Pensioner, chairs and awnings were wonderfully apt. Tina MacHugh’s Lighting was perfectly planned, cleverly honed and ideally executed.
So was the Music: Phill Ward was the vocalist, serving up some superb lyrics when periodically barging on to the stage with his two companions – Music Director Phill Ward was the dazzling, extremely vocal vocalist, with his two colleagues Grant Olding and double bassist Adam Jarvis. Olding’s lyrics, pounding modern society as much as Jacobean misbehaviour, were as electrifying as they were rousingly sung. Yet this trio’s blasts of voice, guitar, mandolin, percussion etc. seemed perfectly fitting for this play: sometimes but not always ‘in yer face’ but also somehow playing a comparable spacing role to, say, Feste’s songs in Twelfth Night. The music was yet further enhanced by some magical background music, some of it inviting another Shakespeare comparison – with Caliban’s rapt ‘jangling instruments’ speech from The Tempest.
This was a team triumph for the entire canny and fast-moving cast. But the person who dominated the stage effortlessly, never putting a foot wrong, was Mark Addy’s Sir John, he of ‘five wives and 17 children.’ Addy turns each of Richard Bean’s beautifully crafted lines – a gift if ever there was one – to gold, or alternatively, muck. ‘It’s a fine house: it would make a good pub’; or in response to ‘He doesn’t sound Jewish’ volunteers ‘Did Jesus?’ ‘My favourite sin, every time – lust. What’s yours?’ ‘Fourteen is already twice six.’ ‘East Yorkshire, most of which I own’. ‘It’s the only one I’ve got and I use it a lot’ (of some unmentionable anatomical part.) ‘Where are we going to find five gentlemen in Hull?’ ‘We have no virgins here.’ ‘Ardour. Well it’s not called ardour (’arder?) for nothing.’ ‘You up there in the wastrel gallery.’ ‘I’ll have to stop shitting off the bridge…’ [but then] ‘it’s my bridge and my river.’
These gems of lines and images run into their hundreds in this superbly crafted, wordy and witty play, so that Hotham père is the character around whom everything revolves. And what a feast – never a meal - he makes of it. Addy devours lines with the same aplomb and voraciousness that Sir John approaches (so he implies) sex. This is easily one of the best solo turns I’ve seen from an actor at Stratford, even in the bard himself. And The Hypocrite is clearly one of the best and cleverest new plays to hit the RSC’s ever-productive stage. What a scintillating use of the Swan stage. And what an unbridled treat. To 29-04-17