Matinee. Gielgud. Part of the RSC Swan season
A wonderful production of a nice, sharp city comedy. This was as good as any of the five plays currently in the RSC repertory; at the moment I think it was the best. Sumptuously costumed and flawlessly performed, this production had a very brisk pace that kept up for the three-hours-plus length of the performance. As in some other cases I had trouble understanding certain London accents, particularly Gertrude, the would-be lady and social-climbing elder daughter of the goldsmith William Touchstone. But she played the role to the hilt, in a most satisfying, large-scale way, as did her counterpart, the newly minted knight Sir Petronel Flash (one of the most brilliant names for a comic character in all of Renaissance drama). Amanda Anders and Michael Matus were the two actors. Sir Petronel’s costume was a miracle of vermilion brocade, with top hat to match.
With a nice satiric thrust, the play pursues the fortunes of opportunists heading “Eastward” on their way to the Virginia colony, where they all propose to become earls and dukes; but a huge storm blights their hopes and deposits them, wetter and wiser, on the Isle of Dogs. In a nice touch, Sir Petronel’s hat has shrunk at least six sizes in the course of his watery misadventure. Equally forlorn is Francis Quicksilver, Touchstone’s errant apprentice, who had been dismissed by Touchstone for malingering and who joins up with the new-minted knight in search of wealth and pleasure. Touchstone is at first resolute against rescuing Quicksilver or pardoning Gertrude, but he is at length persuaded to relent by Golding, his other apprentice, who has been in the right place at the right time, empowered as a city official (his badge of office hanging on a chain around his neck is, in a wonderful comic touch, the red doughnut symbol of the London Underground), and is perceptive of what social good will come from such a reconciliation. There are some other wonderful characters, and character names, to go along with these: Bramble, a lawyer; Slitgut, a butcher’s apprentice; Seagull, a sea captain, and, perhaps best of all, Hamlet, a footman. This last fellow, a spindle-shanks dressed all in black, enters up stage and walks thoughtfully and slowly down, in his hand a loaf of bread, completely round, from which he eats tiny bits. He stops at the edge of the stage, musing reflectively, as the lights on him go out and cast him in deep shadow, so that in silhouette he seems to be contemplating … a skull. Delicious good comic moment this was, and the production is full of them.
I ran into an old friend and fellow graduate student at Princeton, years ago, who is co-editing this play with another friend from that cohort. He said he saw this production, loved it, and went back to see it a second time. If I had had the opportunity, I would have done the same. It counts among the four or five most memorable productions I’ve seen this time (the others: The Tempest, The Malcontent, Engaged, The Beggar’s Opera, and Mrs. Warren’s Profession).