Whilst watching a rare revival of John Marston's The Dutch Courtesan (1605), it struck me that we ought to campaign to restore to the English language some of its more colourful phrases. In particular – I may have misheard, but I don't think I did – one of Marston's characters comes out with the glorious declaration: "I'll make him fart crackers before I'm done with him." No idea what it means exactly, but, oh, it does sound robust.
Unfortunately, as in the early works of Marston's contemporary Ben Jonson, such succinct bluntness often flounders amid lengthy and consciously rhetorical set-piece speeches. It's all very well for the sober, morally austere Malheureux to talk himself round to pursuing his friend Freevill's bit on the side Franceschina – the courtesan of the title – but really, one long-winded expostulation apiece is enough from each gentleman. Likewise with the comic subplot, let conman Cocledemoy trick Mulligrub the vintner again and again, but what need to intersperse his criminal canting with frequent Ciceronian flourishes?
Other than a reluctance on the part of editor Richard Burnip to trim the shapely verbiage, Alex Chisholm's production has a vigour and completeness refreshing at this level of theatre. Renaissance and Jacobean plays do not lend themselves to productions on the cash-strapped fringe (it is nine years since I last saw a fringe production of a work by Marston), and even Chisholm's pared-down cast of eleven is beyond the hopes of all too many companies. The spurned Franceschina's stratagems of revenge as Freevill leaves her to marry the chaste Beatrice, and the furious Mulligrub's series of comeuppances at the hands of Cocledemoy, are played out with animation on the modest stage of the Wimbledon Studio Theatre against James Rowell's plausibly half-timbered set.
Notable performances come from Philippe Spall as Malheureux, affecting a Malvolio-like change of temperament on falling for Franceschina (not the only reminder of Twelfth Night – in the subplot, too, a stocks scene would seem to owe something to the "Sir Topas" exchange from Shakespeare's play), Michael Eaves as the cony-catching Cocledemoy and Jennifer Burgess, who gives a delightful upwardly-mobile daftness to Mistress Mulligrub. (Discreet and unpatronising plaudits, too, for casting blind actor Andrew Hodgson in a couple of non-"ghetto" roles.) Truth to tell, the general appeal of such a production will be limited, but it deserves recognition and respect, and a bit more besides.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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