The Knight of the Burning Pestle at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The candlelit intimacy of the recently opened Sam Wanamaker Playhouse provides the perfect setting for Adele Thomas’s loving revival of Francis Beaumont’s farcical comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Written in or around 1607, when Beaumont was just 23, this is an anarchic, satirical Jacobean play that pokes fun at the popular chivalric romances of the time.
The audience is gathered to see a play called The London Merchant. No sooner has it begun than a grocer (Phil Daniels), sitting in the front row with his wife (Pauline McLynn) and his apprentice, Rafe (Matthew Needham), interrupts the action. He demands to see a tale “of the commons of the city” and that his boy, Rafe, plays the heroic lead: “I’ll have him kill a lion with a pestle.” What ensues is a wild, hilarious collision of multiple worlds that engulfs this beautiful, atmospheric playhouse. Remarkably, given the play’s age, it displays a real desire to challenge the constraints of traditional theatrical forms.
There is a real feeling that anything could happen in the next scene, and that is a liberating feeling. It can be a tiresome one as well, though. The disparate and farcical plot lines – the characters traverse from Waltham Forest to Cracovia, from Moldavia to Mile End – can lose their lustre after a while (the play is three hours). This is why the grocer and his wife are so vital in this play. They are neither “in” nor “out” of the action. They remain, for the majority of the play, in their front row seats, passing comment and sharing grapes and beer with other members of the audience. Their archetypal marital relationship is something to which the audience can grasp and understand. McLynn is perfect as the opinionated, affable grocer’s wife.
Their very human, real relationship reminds us that, for all its theatrical daring, The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a play about the importance of happiness. Drunken, big-bellied, perpetually-singing Merrythought (played by Paul Rider) is the embodiment of this happiness. “Tis mirth that fills the veins with blood”, he trills, and he is right, for what is life without mirth?
This is an important play. It has something to teach our postmodern hearts of unease and discomfort. Sore buttocks – the seats in this stunning theatre are not the most comfortable – are a small price to pay for witnessing this three hour joyous ode to mirth.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 30th March 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.