THE CITY MADAM
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 11 May, 2011
****

It's not about buying advancement, it's about increasing social mobility... you can almost hear the contemporary arguments reverberating through the early scenes of Philip Massinger's 1632 city comedy, as everyone seems to be pursuing some deal involving title, social cachet or other preferment for money.

Soon, however, the focus tightens on Luke, the once profligate brother of wealthy merchant Sir John Frugal now reduced to acting as a servant to Frugal's vain, ambitious wife and daughters. When Luke inherits Frugal's fortune on the latter's supposed retirement to a monastery, his ostensible humility and asceticism are put to the test. It should come as no surprise that the truth involves much wicked cackling on the part of Jo Stone-Fewings as Luke and some ludicrous posing in a golden mask by Christopher Godwin as the returned Frugal disguised as an American Indian sorceror.

What is more intriguing is the ambivalence of Massinger's attitude. Luke is clearly not a figure to be approved of, yet his conduct in calling in debts and enforcing monetary strictures is also the means of punishment and reform of virtually every other character in the play. He is at once moral scourge and villainous ingrate. The rectifying figure of Frugal, meanwhile, is also the man who built up these riches and mortgages in the first place. One can only enjoy the high jinks by accepting a place oneself in this hypocritical world.

But we do accept and we do enjoy. Dominic Hill's first RSC production (shortly before he changes his principal gig from the artistic directorship of the Traverse in Edinburgh to that of the Citizens in Glasgow) strikes a similar tone to that of Gregory Doran's current production of Cardenio in repertoire in the same space, but Hill does so with greater justification and greater success. Alex Hassell's comic talents work much better here as the foppish suitor Sir Maurice, Sara Crowe is an acidic delight as the scheming Lady Frugal and Simeon Moore gets in some supporting laughs as a faux-Welsh astrologer. It will cause no radical literary re-assessments, but it constitutes another deserved RSC revival of a work by one of Shakespeare's broad contemporaries.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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