The second production at the recently opened Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe is at the opposite end of the spectrum to The Duchess of Malfi, providing an incredibly entertaining, light hearted time at the theatre.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is effectively two (if not three) plays in one. There is The London Merchant, the play the acting troupe is attempting to stage, in which the merchant’s apprentice Jasper wishes to marry his master’s daughter Luce against her father’s wishes. In to this scenario a grocer and his wife in the audience insist that one of their own joins in as a heroic character and so the grocer’s young apprentice Rafe is thrust in to the spotlight to become a knight who, separate to the main plot, will make it his mission to do brave deeds as the Knight of the Burning Pestle (which in Pulp Fiction style is carried in a small box, which glows in golden light when opened!). The rest of the play revolves around the comical blending of these two strands in a hilarious, Monty Python style story, which sees all manner of crazy requests provided by the grocer and his wife for Rafe to act on stage, together with the perturbed company, who are also determined that their own tale should continue despite this unexpected insertion.
The hilarity of the piece suits the intimate setting of the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse perfectly, enhanced by the wonderful staging which sees the grocer and his wife sit throughout the show amongst the audience members in the Pit, providing a third aspect to the play as we watch their reactions to the action unfolding on stage, making this a truly engaging experience for everyone (and those sitting near them will also benefit from offerings of food and drink too)! Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn are wonderful as the couple whose interfering antics and whose relationship becomes central to the story. There is genuine warmth and affection between them and their interaction with the audience is brilliantly played.
The ensemble also contains some other strong performances. Alex Waldmann (whose King John for the RSC still burns brightly in my mind) was very strong throughout and gave a more confident performance here than in Malfi, clearly comfortable with the light tone of the piece and the freedom he has to explore the role. Due to Matthew Needham’s injury (more on that shortly) he also had to act the most bonkers stage fight I have ever seen!
At the start of Sunday’s matinee we were informed by the “stage hands” that Matthew Needham who plays Rafe had suffered an injury to his leg during rehearsals and that certain scenes had been modified. This resulted in a quirk which for such a farcical play worked sublimely – Matthew acted the whole play on crutches and during fight scenes the other actors undertook a master class in improvisation, throwing imaginary punches and hurling themselves about the stage, whilst the stage hands within the play called out to the audience what was happening (“Now Rafe is thrown to the floor and beaten” etc.)! It is unfortunate for Matthew that he is injured and I hope he recovers fully before the end of the run. However, I personally thought this creative solution to the problem worked fantastically well. The “fight” between Rafe and Jasper was one of the funniest I’ve seen at the theatre, particularly when Matthew turned to my side of the Pit and dryly commented how it was much easier this way and despite his injury I thought he performed the role of Rafe extremely well throughout.
Again, the unique atmosphere of the candlelit Playhouse added to the intimacy and at times made it feel as if we were all at one big party rather than the theatre. The comedic tone of the play seemed written for the space. I particularly enjoyed the entertaining start to proceedings as the stage hands (who become the Knight’s men and are played with prefect comic timing by Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan) light the candles, setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon. The musicians are also excellent adding to the frivolity and fun.
The running time was 3 hours, which is perhaps still a little long but this is compensated for by four breaks (three four minute interludes and a 15 minute break). I also understand that this is already 15 minutes shorter than the first preview so I imagine by opening night it will be tighter and a little shorter. Also, thankfully, they seem to have added additional cushioning to the seats since my earlier trip to Malfi, meaning that I actually felt quite comfortable in the Pit.
Due to the small number of seats in the Playhouse and the relatively short run, this is likely to sell out very soon (most dates are already showing limited availability). Therefore if you want to see something a bit different that will leave you with a smile on your face I recommend you buy a ticket quickly!
The Knight of the Burning Pestle runs until 30th March 2014 and tickets are available at the Globe’s website: