Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 29 September, 2005

It’s not often you find an actor who’s named after the part they’re playing.  Timothy Spall was in the role of the callow youth Rafe in Francis Beaumont’s 1607 play when he met his wife-to-be in 1981. He commemorated this by naming his son Rafe. Now Rafe is playing Rafe.  I’m afraid that’s more interesting than most of this production, which fails to bring alive what is a very early, very clever theatrical deconstruction.

It starts out as a romantic comedy, The London Merchant. But the Prologue has barely begun when up pipe a wealthy merchant and his wife in the audience.  They want to see a dashing tale of knight-errantry starring their young, slightly gormless apprentice Rafe.  For the rest of the show, the “proper” play is beset by these wealthy patrons insisting on Rafe-led episodes that completely clash with everything else.

Beaumont’s play parodied both Jacobean rom-com and knightly adventure tales (Don Quixote-like, Rafe’s big duel is with, er, a shoddy barber), and was pioneering in breaking the so-called fourth wall between stage and audience.  But it was too clever to enjoy much success at the time, and modern-day revivals are caught in a dilemma.  They have to retain its language and structure, but also update its style.

Anna Mackmin’s production founders on this problem. Instead of opting for broad, burlesque performances, she has her actors play it relatively straight until well into the second half.  By the time it gets really ridiculous, it’s too late to achieve take-off.  And the Barbican has been reconfigured with a vast, hangar-like stage; having to jog about half a mile to interrupt somebody tends to slow the pace rather.

Tim Potter turns in a nice panto-dame-y performance as Mistress Merrythought, but few other actors get to cut loose.  Rafe Spall, whose part does give him that leeway, is kept on too tight a rein, until a bizarre Village People-style routine in the final half-hour.  Beaumont was only 23 when he wrote the play, which appears in the Barbican/Young Vic “Young Genius” season. Genius maybe, but this doesn’t demonstrate it.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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