The City Madam, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Thursday 12 May 2011
One man's purgatory is another man's happiness in Philip Massinger's remarkable 1632 city comedy of social climbing and mercenary deceit. Oh, the raptures, for instance, of being hurried in a coach to Brentford, Staines, or Barnet for ten-pound suppers and the shaking of the sheets.
These stews in the suburbs are buttressing the metropolitan "new money" families like the Frugals: Sir John, like the Duke in Measure for Measure, decides to test the extent to which his dissolute, prodigal brother, Luke, might be reformed by beating a retreat, handing over his financial reins, and returning as an observant "Indian" from Virginia.
Lady Frugal and her two daughters, having acquired social status and attendant fripperies, abuse and humiliate Luke, who exacts revenge while discomfiting Frugal's trio of Jonsonian creditors (Hoist, Penury and Fortune) and deceiving the aristocratic watchdog, Lord Lacy.
What is so enjoyable about Dominic Hill's debut production for the RSC, and Jo Stone-Fewings's enchanting, slippery performance as Luke, is that the ground keeps shifting. Moral certainties are built on sand. People are continuously reminded of their humble origins, social pretensions and inability to turn over a new leaf.
Massinger's better-known city comedy, A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625), has survived because of a larger-than-life leading role, Sir Giles Overreach. But this forgotten play is just as interesting and Massinger remains infinitely rewarding.
Hill's production, designed with a free-flowing colour by Tom Piper, is a parade of arrogance and folly in a corrupt, money-obsessed society: Sara Crowe is hilarious as Lady Frugal, chivvying her daughters along like Fergie and the princesses; Nicholas Day intones Lord Lacy with a fruitiness that might make Donald Sinden blush; and Christopher Ettridge raises irritation to an art form as a domestic servant with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder.
The sub-plots involve treacherous apprentices, unsuitable suitors, a whore called Shave'Em (Pippa Nixon) who turns her boudoir into Cleopatra's barge, and a trick puppet show devised by the returning "Indians"; all seem as bait to the Puritans and William Prynne's actor-bashing Histriomastix, published in the same year as the play's premiere. The show's a real treat, and a timely reminder of the RSC's duties in the Jacobean and Caroline repertoire.
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